Not the Time for Human Rights?

by Dina Iskander*

In recent times, during gatherings of family or friends, politics dominates the talk, as has become customary in Egypt. One of the sentences that I keep hearing over and over again is that now is the time for economic progress, security and stability, but it is not the time for human rights. The last three years have been hard on us all, no matter what political camp we belong to. It is understandable that some of us feel that we need to move forward and that sacrifices need to be made. Yet, let us reflect a bit on how strategic it is to sacrifice human rights (for the time being), for what is considered the greater good.


Graffiti in Cairo, source.

Let me take you on a short journey to the year 1948, when the world got first familiar with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UDHR, which marks the founding of the international human rights doctrine, was adopted by member states of the then-newly formed United Nations. While the UDHR lays down sets of principles that have no binding effect, the two major covenants that followed it in the year 1966, namely, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights were and are still considered law, applicable to all UN member states who ratified them.

In that regard, it is interesting to note a certain reality: human rights laws were not written and adopted by the world’s most romantic, charitable and loving people; they were not even written by human rights activists. Governments drafted human rights laws. Governments, unlike people, do not have feelings or opinions – governments have strategies, they have interests and they have power. For a government to choose to sign a document binding it to a certain responsibility to protect the rights of its people; for a government to allocate funds to sustain institutions that are mandated with the protection and execution of such rights; for a government to choose to sign on to a set of rules that will restrain the course of its own action, it must have a vested interest, and get something out of it.

Let us consider this: Why are freedoms of assembly, expression and association rights that the government would like to protect – not control?

History has proven to us that underground movements tend to be much stronger than movements that operate in the light. It is uncontestable, for example, that Europe has suffered most under Hitler’s Nazi fascist regime. Yet, paradoxically, fascist parties continue to operate in Europe to date. This is not because Western governments are short of law enforcement, but because it serves the nation’s interest that such radical groups, which we can find everywhere on this earth, are allowed to operate under public oversight (not only the state’s oversight). The more you enable groups to work in the light, the less option they have to work underground. In an open society where people have avenues to voice their opinion, to practice their political rights and to hold their governments to account, people see no need to join underground movements.

It is thus by no coincidence that oppressive states are fertile lands for the rise of terrorism and terrorist movements. Egypt is a case in point. The Muslim Brotherhood has, in fact, been operating underground for more than 80 years in Egypt. The strength that it built underground empowered it to rule Egypt. Yet, other factors aside, one year of working in the light managed to bring it down.

Why then is due process a “right” that a government would like to protect?

Strategically speaking, sending someone unjustly to jail, or to be executed, cannot solve any problem. It in fact creates many more troubles. For instance, what do you expect from a teenager whose father has been unjustly executed, when he was just 12 years old? That kid knows that his father was innocent, that the judge took nothing more than a couple of minutes to listen (if at all) to his father’s defense. That kid also knows that the rest of society has applauded the decision. Nothing could become of such a young boy but a perfect candidate for conscription by fundamentalist groups who work underground. This is not nuclear physics, this is just a repetitive episode that the Egyptian drama has bored us with in the 1990s.

On the other hand, when it comes to the rule of law, we cannot pick and choose. Either we have rule of law that applies to all citizens or we do not. Once a system is in place, whether corrupt or not, the machinery works on its own, according to the way it has been set up. In other words, a corrupt legal system that sentences an innocent man to jail will no doubt fail to grant you and me our rights should we have a conflicting interest with someone who happens to be more powerful. And you and I would think twice before making an investment in a country where the rule of law is not upheld, none of us could anticipate who they may have conflicting interests with in the course of one’s business.

You might be thinking that yes, this human rights’ strategy works elsewhere, but in Egypt, security can only be achieved by the “iron fist.” Well, let me tell you otherwise.

Accesses to education, to healthcare and to shelter are cornerstones of the human rights discourse. Education, healthcare and shelter are necessary prerequisites for a life with dignity. While Egypt has seen two episodes of popular uprisings in its recent history, the biggest social class of Egypt – the 40 percent who are living below poverty line – have not led either; and, most probably, many may have not even participated in either.

You and I may not want to be in Egypt on the day when these 40 percent reach their tipping point. If they do, no police force in the Middle East will be able to contain it. So, to prevent this from happening, you agree that economic reforms must happen today. But how would you expect a trickle-down effort of such large investments such as the Suez Canal project, foreign direct investment and tourism, if the vast majority of Egyptians have no proper education? What job would they get that would allow them to climb the social ladder and have a better life?

Let us imagine that education is entirely reformed. How would you ensure that university graduates from poor backgrounds would get equal opportunities, given the fact that the state institutions remain corrupt? What avenues would such youths have to appeal decisions of officials who sideline them to employ sons and daughters of more privileged citizens? This really takes us back to square one, doesn’t it? We are in dire need a functional judiciary; we need rule of law, we need justice to ensure that everyone has a chance for a better life. Otherwise, there is no safety or security for anyone.

The frustrated young graduate who was sidelined because he has no connections will join the 12-year old boy whose father has unjustly been sentenced to death and they will turn against the rest of society, possibly in a violent manner. It comes as no surprise that leaders of underground movements are highly educated. But, education, in the absence of a set of other rights can be no guarantee for a peaceful society.

There is no doubt that many of us are seeking stability. Yet, how to get there and at what cost requires more than a pure security-driven mindset. These are difficult times for Egypt and it is time we get out of our vicious circle of who is with who, and who is against who. In a country of one race, one culture, one language, one truth, we need to embrace basic concepts of discussion, mutual respect, shades of grey and respectful disagreements.

It is a time where a single strategy cannot work, a one-track minded policy will fail, a black-and-white analysis of a situation is destructive. It is time where Egypt needs to befriend its different generations and different political views. The unrelenting attack on all what is deemed by the powerful as “different” will bring us all down.

This text was first published on Mada Masr.


Dina Iskander holds a Master’s degree in International Human Rights Law from the American University in Cairo. Iskander wrote her thesis on the Right to Health in Egypt, taking Hepatitis C as a case study.

Readers are encouraged to quote, reproduce and share this content for educational, non-profit purposes, provided the source is acknowledged. The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the HR&D team.

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