The launching on 11 September 2021 of the Egyptian National Strategy for Human Rights (NSHR) marked a long awaited historic milestone. The Strategy reflects unprecedented political will, and is the fruit of relentless work by the Supreme Permanent Committee for Human Rights chaired by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sameh Shukry. The committee was established in 2018 through a Prime Minister decision, and counts among its ranks a plethora of Egyptian experts in rights, civil society and public work.
It was auspicious that President Sisi actively participated in the launching ceremony, describing it as “an integrated strategy that promotes the principles of the new republic”. He presented it to the Egyptian people in a remarkable speech that underscored the economic, political, and social rights and freedoms in the Strategy. The President stressed the absolute equality of Egyptians on the groundwork of full citizenship rights that preclude all forms of discrimination, a principle firmly entrenched in the Constitution.
The breakthrough in the event, however, was President Sisi’s bold take on the issue long placed on hold, that of “freedom of belief and religious freedom”. The President said that almost no individual can take credit—I add ‘or discredit’—for the religion that he or she belongs to, given that the majority of Egyptians are born into that religion. He said we ought to accept this as an unchallenged fact. In courage seldom displayed by political leaders, the President went on to say that the religion of citizens is none of our concern, be they believers or not. We believe, he said, that every person will ultimately be judged by a just God; no one else can claim a right to judgement on any faith.
The NSHR includes tools and measures to enhance the human rights situation in Egypt, and pave the way towards bringing it on par with the international treaties and agreements of which Egypt is signatory. Egypt has very often expressed reservations on articles of these treaties or overlooked the implementation of others, which always reflected poorly on reports by international rights organisations on human rights in Egypt.
We welcome what was spelt out in the NSHR with comfort and optimism. In fact, the call to include NGOs in overseeing its implementation is significant since it redeems Egyptian civil society; it acknowledges that NGOs have a vital role to play in monitoring the success of the human rights strategy, a role that cannot be left to State institutions alone.
Those who scrutinised and assessed the Strategy, however, noted that it lacked performance indicators and provisions for regular periodic evaluation. Without these, we risk that the Strategy’s announced objectives would give way to reports that make no real assessment but turn into hollow rhetoric.
My desire is that practical measures would be taken to introduce the NSHR to our children in school as a national document; this would nurture in them at an early age a fine culture of human rights so they would grow armed with its principles and committed to its concepts.
Now that I mentioned the main highlights of NSHR, let me broach what it did not include or “placed on hold”. Let no one see this as allegation of shortcoming; the Strategy is definitely a progressive achievement. I practice my right as an Egyptian to dream beyond the on-the-ground reality into the broader realms of the civilised world. Being a firm believer in the saying “whatever cannot be gained in its entirety should not be relinquished entirely”, I am happy with the NSHR, yet I dream of more.
I aspire to reach the “separation of State and religion”, which Egyptian rights experts had called for when the 2014 Constitution was drafted; the general climate back then, however, was not receptive of it. Egypt’s Constitution had always stipulated that “Islam is the religion of the State”; this had to remain unchanged in the 2014 Constitution to preserve social solidarity and societal peace. That Constitution was drafted following a yearlong post-Arab Spring Islamist rule that Egyptians had rid themselves of, so changing such a clause then might have been interpreted as a desire to get rid of Islamic teachings as a whole, and this would have opened the door for divisions between liberals and the mostly pious Egyptian Muslims.
Today, however, and especially following President Sisi’s bold declaration on religious freedom, I am more hopeful towards entrenching freedom of belief—or non-belief—so that the day would come when the State would be civic, and faith would only concern individuals. I thus aspire to civic laws addressing all aspects of life and applying to all Egyptians. Such laws would constitute the civic boundaries that all Egyptians should respect. An individual would be perfectly free to resort to the doctrine of his or her religion [in issues such as family affairs], but would be answerable to the State according to general laws that apply indiscriminately to everyone.
1 October 202