28 February 2010
The recent dismissal of Ahmed Kamal Abul-Magd, vice-chairman of the government-affiliated National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), sent shockwaves through Egypt’s intellectual and political circles. Abul-Magd was generally viewed as a man of unique calibre. He is a lawyer, an enlightened Islamic scholar, a staunch advocate of human and citizenship rights, and was the main actor at the NCHR especially that the chairman Boutros Boutros-Ghali spends long stretches of time away from Egypt.
Watani had a lengthy interview with Dr Abul-Magd, in which he took up a host of issues. Among them were the escalating sectarian strife, human rights conditions in Egypt, and the role of NGOs in promoting political reform. Dr Abul-Magd said that, given the unmistakable trends overtaking the global community at this time, he wished the President would take the initiative of stirring the stagnant waters and leading a “white revolution” in Egypt.
“How?” Watani asked.
To begin with, Dr Abul-Magd said, the Constitution may be amended. The infamous articles 76 and 77, which practically bar an independent from running for president and which stipulate an unlimited number of terms for a given president, must be changed. The sway the security apparatus holds over some issues should decline. Confidence building between the State and the public is a must.
Talking about constitutional change, how about article 2 of the Constitution? Many Copts have called for changing that, since perpetrators of discrimination against Copts frequently refer to it to legitimise their actions.
It is preferable not to talk about this article [which stipulates Islam as the religion of the State and Islamic law as the main source of legislation]. The Copts’ main concern is equality, especially in terms of leading posts and representation in legislative councils. These issues can be treated through effective legislation.
But legislation has not solved many sectarian problems. The bill for unified regulations for building places of worship has not been placed on Parliament’s agenda even though it has been with Parliament for more than five years now.
The law should be passed as soon as possible; the delay relays a negative message that the State is willing neither to allow the building of churches nor to resolve the current impasse. The bill stipulates regulations to govern the building of mosques and churches equally. It is inconceivable that thousands of Copts are deprived of places to pray in.
Two years ago, I personally re-submitted the bill to Speaker of the Parliament Fathi Sorour. I do not understand why it was never placed on the agenda.
I believe the law ought to be passed immediately. Otherwise problems on that head will aggravate; the international community is bound to voice its disapprobation and this, in turn, is bound to make us angry. But it is only fair to say that foreign pressure sometimes helps. Instead of using the term “pressure” I prefer to say “exploiting the current international situation” in a way that does not contradict with sovereignty and domestic policy. It is counterproductive to adopt an isolationist approach. We should rather interact and cooperate with the outside world.
How do you explain the by-now common practice of appealing to President Mubarak to resolve sectarian problems?
Appealing to the President signifies that State institutions are incompetent. Because they are afraid to take decisions, they wait for instructions to be dictated to them from higher up.
In case of the Nag Hammadi Christmas Eve crime of last January, the NCHR has sent its report on the incident to the President. Why was not the report released to the public?
We dispatched two committees to Nag Hammadi to investigate the matter. A report was written and we referred it to the President in order to study it and take measures to help resolve the sectarian issue. It was not possible to refer the report to the President and release it to the public simultaneously. But certain relevant steps to defuse the current tension were stressed.
Did any positive signs follow?
Yes. The governor of Qena took several initiative steps to alleviate sectarian tension, and the suspects are now facing trial; let’s wait and see what comes.
How do you view the ‘reconciliation sessions’—where victims and offenders are made to sit together and ‘reconcile’, with the victims consequently relinquishing all their legal rights? More often than not, the security apparatus pressures Copts into ‘resolving’ sectarian disputes, in which they are the victimised party, in this manner.
The NCHR organises reconciliation sessions to resolve certain disputes. I find them meaningful but inadequate if the problem is to be properly addressed. The State, for its part, has to shoulder its responsibility regarding the Copts. Copts have the right to feel angry. Expressing anger is acceptable. Even when protest involves minor infringements, it is better than acquiescence.
Do outraged Copts commit infringements while protesting?
Yes. But resentment should be dealt with through a political rather than a security approach. Otherwise, infringements might either develop into deeper tension or a recoil to the erstwhile state of passivity. A dialogue with protestors must be launched.
Who should take the initiative?
The State is responsible for that and the President should step in. Sadly, the intellectual elite do not live up to their responsibility. Some prefer to remain tight-lipped while others only aggravate the problem. An objective dialogue should be held between the State on one hand and Coptic and Muslim clergy on the other.
Would enhancing citizenship rights make things better?
It would not be enough. There should be a genuine intention for change. Constitutional article 40 already addresses the issue of citizenship as it states that Egyptians are equal before the law. But the question is whether people are willing to implement that and coexist peacefully.
How could peaceful coexistence be realised?
The current state of religious polarisation is really dangerous. I now find hospitals which almost exclusively serve Copts or Muslims. There should be red lines that no one would be allowed to cross. Since they form the majority, Muslims should be banned from promoting sectarian practices.
After instituting a quota for women in the People##s Assembly, are we any closer to a quota for Copts?
I am against positive discrimination for Copts. The situation is different with women. The problem of Copts could be solved through encouraging political parties to field Coptic candidates.
How do you view the coming elections?
I am not optimistic. The entire political climate is not too positive.
Do you agree with calls for foreign monitoring of the polls?
Yes, provided it would be reciprocal, meaning that Egypt should be allowed to monitor polling in the counties that would monitor Egyptian polls.
Is it possible for NGOs to play an effective role in the coming period?
Definitely. NGOs do not antagonise any party. They should be encouraged, especially since political parties have become too impotent to play any meaningful role.
What do you demand of the government?
It should protect Egyptians at home and abroad, stick to transparency and the rule of law and make a cultural and educational revolution that would gradually realise change.
How do you assess the performance of the NCHR?
There are human rights violations in Egypt. But the NCHR has neither the authorities nor the capability to stand up to these violations on its own. The state of emergency is a main obstacle in this regard.
How do you comment on your departure from the NCHR?
It has given me time to do other worthy things. But I am not happy with the way I was treated. I only knew of my dismissal from the morning papers. Yet the President sent me a letter of appreciation of my role during my service with the NCHR.
Do you have anything to say to young people?
They should be optimistic and have hope for a better future.