-Commentary-

CAIRO — At gatherings of family or friends, politics tend to dominate the talk, as has become customary in Egypt. One of the phrases I keep hearing over and over again is that now is the time for economic progress, security and stability. It is not the time, this same line of reasoning holds, for human rights.

The last three years have been hard on us all, no matter what political camp one belongs to. It is understandable that some of us feel we need to move forward and that sacrifices need to be made. And yet it's worth considering just how strategic it really is to sacrifice human rights (for the time being) for what is considered the greater good.

Let me take you on a short journey to the year 1948, when the world first became acquainted with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR, which marks the founding of the international human rights doctrine, was adopted by member states of the then-newly formed UN. 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 that 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. Unlike people, governments do not have feelings or opinions. Instead they 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.

Public oversight

Let us consider this: Why would a government look to protect rather than control people's rights to freedom of assembly, expression and association?

History has shown that underground movements tend to be much stronger than movements that operate in the light. That's why fascist parties, for example, are allowed to operate in Europe despite the horrors perpetrated on the continent by the fascist regime of Adolf Hitler. Law enforcement in those countries could shut such groups down. They don't because Europe's interests are better served by having those radical groups operate under public oversight — not only the state's oversight.

Neo-Nazi march in Leipzig, Germany, Oct. 17, 2009. Photo: Herder3

The more you enable groups to work in the light, the less likely they will work underground. In an open society where people have avenues to voice their opinion, to practice their political rights and to hold their governments accountable, people see no need to join underground movements.

It is no coincidence, therefore, 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 12-year-old boy whose father has been unjustly executed? That child knows that his father was innocent, that the judge took no more than a couple of minutes to listen (if at all) to his father’s defense. That boy also knows that the rest of society has applauded the decision. Nothing could become of such a child but a perfect candidate for conscription by fundamentalist groups who work underground. This is no rocket science, this is just a repetitive episode that the Egyptian drama has bored us with since the 1990s.

The rule of law

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. We would also think twice before investing in a country where the rule of law is not upheld. That's because there is no way for you or I to anticipate who we might have conflicting interests with in the course of our business.

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

Access 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% who live below the poverty line — have not led either. It's likely that many of those people didn't even participate.

Tahrir Square, January 29, 2001. Photo: Ramy Raoof

You and I may not want to be in Egypt on the day when these 40% 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 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?

Shades of grey

Let us imagine that education is entirely reformed. How would you ensure that university graduates from poor backgrounds get equal opportunities given the fact that the state institutions remain corrupt? What avenues would such youths have to appeal decisions made by officials who opt instead 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 of 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 overlooked 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. 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 whom, and who is against whom. 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 for Egypt to embrace its different generations and different political views. The relentless attack on all that is deemed "different" by the powerful will bring us all down.