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By William Fisher
Last month, after many months of wrangling -- and following considerable pressure from the United States and other major financial donors -- the Egyptian Government established its National Council on Human Rights. (NCHR). This move by the Mubarak regime – a key element of a high-profile effort led by Mubarak’s son, Gamal, to create a more transparent and equitable Egyptian society -- has met with mixed responses. Many long-time human rights advocates believe the move is essentially cosmetic. Those more closely identified with Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party see the move as an important first baby step in an infant Egyptian reform process.
The NCHR’s functions include developing a national plan for the protection of human rights, verifying citizens' complaints regarding human rights abuses, ensuring honest implementation of international treaties on human rights, coordinating with local and international human rights organizations, fostering a culture of human rights, and presenting an annual report on the human rights situation to the president, the Shura Council -- a kind of House of Lords with no legislative authority -- and the Egyptian parliament, the People's Assembly. Notably absent from this Mission is any authority to enforce its findings. The NCHR will be “affiliated to” the Shura Council, which will appoint the NCHR’s 27 members for renewable terms of three years. The NCHR members include former ministers, human rights activists, the head of the journalists’ syndicate, the president of the bar association, and legal experts.
The Government gave the Council high profile status from the outset. It appointed Boutros Boutros-Gali, former UN Secretary General, to head the body. A former deputy prime minister and minister of trade, Boutros-Gali is a Christian. The symbolism of his selection was likely directed toward many who charge that Egypt systematically discriminates against the 6% of Egyptians who are Coptic Christians.
The London-based rights group Amnesty International cautiously welcomed the new council. "This is a positive step. Nevertheless, we have to see if the body will effect any real change," said the organization's Middle East spokeswoman.
Egyptian critics of the NCHR contend it is designed to muffle criticism from the United States, the United Nations, and numerous local and international human rights groups. One Egyptian activist dismissed the council as “window-dressing”. Another, Gasser Abdel Razzak, a board member of the country’s oldest human rights group, the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights (EOHR), said there has been “…no change of policy toward human rights,” citing the government’s continuing arrests of both Islamists and liberals, its ‘brutal’ crackdown on protests against the US-led war in Iraq, and its renewal last year of the decades-old state of emergency. Independent MP Mortada Mansour characterized the NCHR as " a toothless body aimed at giving some kind of political prestige to certain public figures…to provide Egypt with a sort of democratic camouflage." Another human rights group, Al Nadim, which specializes in treatment of victims of violence, said: “If this council is about convincing the international community that Egypt is an oasis of democracy, we shall not participate in this theatrical play... (our) position…(is)…exposing the dirty laundry is not harmful. What is harmful is to leave it to rot, like the rotting of victims’ wounds in the darkness of Egyptian prison and police station cells.”
But according to Justice Minister Farouk Seif El- Nasr, the proposed NCHR is "a striking new example of democratic reform in the Arab world". It was significant, he said, that a law rather than a presidential decree would create the NCHR. "This is necessary to ensure the permanence of its activities," the minister said. However, he made it clear that the NCHR is a consultative council -- "a watchdog commission with no powers (that) issues recommendations rather than gives binding orders." He noted that Saudi Arabia had recently set up a human rights group and that other Arab countries were taking similar initiatives. He cited Jordan’s recent parliamentary elections allowing opposition Islamic candidates to regain a foothold after boycotting the 1997 elections, and Morocco’s parliamentary elections that reserved nearly 10 percent of seats for women.
The establishment of the NCHR was part of a much heralded package of measures that includes scrapping the 1980s Law 108 on state security courts, and abolishing the hard labor penalty in the penal code. Law 108 allows security courts to try civilians on criminal charges before state security courts, giving prosecutors the power to hold defendants in custody for as long as six months, pending investigation of certain charges Independent MPs described the revocation of hard labor as cosmetic since the penalty has not been applied in Egypt since 1983. Mubarak opponents have called repeatedly for repeal of the entire Emergency Law, initially enacted in the 1980s to curb radical Islamists following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat and renewed last year.
The NCHR faces formidable challenges. It does not report to the President. It was established with little or no consultation with opposition politicians, human rights groups, or other NGOs. Its scope and authority are still unclear. Groups like Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and the US State Department have continually criticized Egypt’s human rights record, most recently for practicing torture in Egyptian prisons. Amnesty claims that seven people died in Egypt last year as a result of systematic and widespread torture by state security officials and police officers, including electric shocks, beatings, whippings and other abuses. Not least among the Council’s challenges is a law that imposes harsh restrictions on NGOs, and its relationship to the myriad of draconian regulations established under the so-called Emergency Law.
Egypt justifies much of its repression on the need to curb radical Islamists. Nonetheless, the world will be watching carefully to see whether the country can successfully walk the tightrope of dealing with terrorists while improving fundamental civil liberties. In this effort, it is not alone. Its principal critic, the United States, is currently struggling to achieve the same balance.