By William Fisher
I haven’t had this much fun since Grandma let all the cousins, nieces and nephews rummage through her big Brooklyn house in our fierce competition for the title “Scavenger of the Month.”
Well, imagine the sheer glee, the unbridled joy that an unreconstructed scavenger feels when you let him/her loose in the archives of the Egyptian State Information Service website.
The Archives is where the government stores old material, though in this country today, old could be as young as a month.
Much of what we find there could bring on apoplexy. For example, round about 2004-2005 – when Egypt was under a bit of pressure from the US and others to democratize its election procedures – The State Information Service decided to publish a book on, wait for it, Human Rights in Egypt.
Here’s a passage:
“Within the Egyptian pioneering role in approving, consolidating and maintaining human rights, we shall expound the international and regional agreements Egypt has joined, the human rights-related articles provided in the Egyptian Constitution, the authorities and institutions in charge of supporting and protecting these rights in Egypt, and the role played by the Supreme Constitutional Court in interpreting and adopting these rights.”
Pioneering role? Maintaining human rights? At this point the scavenger doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
But, maybe one needs to take a longer view of history, perhaps with just a modicum of forgiveness toward the blow-hard strongman who puts on his game face while trying to look and sound serious while spewing forth volumes of misinformation and disinformation to his faithful subjects.
Here are some choice passages from the SIS book, “Human Rights in Egypt”:
Since the early dawn of life, freedom and right to option God Almighty bestowed upon Adam and Eve have been of the most important options that have determined the human person’s relation with God and with others, and have determined as well the main features and methodology Adam and his descendants have followed to consolidate and safeguard human rights throughout ages.
The divine religions have been revealed to lay down a life system, and to regulate relations among individuals, with each other on the one hand, and with the ruler on the other, on the basis of justice, mercy, cordiality, cooperation and equality. They have been also revealed to renounce discrimination among human beings on the basis of interest, benefit, gender, sex or color, calling for dialogue with the other and respect for all human values.
The US Declaration of Human Rights (1766)* (sic) and The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) are the first charters that have enlisted these rights in national declarations, expressing special experiences of these peoples.
After going through a litany of the human rights-related agreements sponsored by the United Nations and signed by, among others, Egypt – most of which Egypt has arrogantly broken -- this modest volume tells us how happy the country is to be a signatory to these treaties and to wholeheartedly embrace their principals and practices.
En passant, it mentions the National Council for Human Rights. This is the fig-leaf Mubarak invented to “investigate” human rights abuses by agent of the government. And Mubarak was fortunate to able to reach out to the always compliant Boutros Boutros-Galli (who was living in Paris) to be its chairman.
The book recounts “Egypt’s keenness” on boosting the democratic course through introducing amendments into Article No. 76 of the Constitution and the ensuing multi-presidential candidate and parliamentary elections.
The book reviews “Egypt’s efforts for enhancing the right to freedom of opinion and expression, safeguarding women’s rights; including combating discrimination against her and empowering her to contribute to development as well as preserving child rights and the rights to clean environment and to education. Egypt has adhered to all these rights within the context of sustainable development and the Non-governmental organizations in Egypt.”
[Just for the record, dear readers, the Mubarak regime introduced several of the most disgracefully restrictive laws to control NGOs. It’s a wonder any of them have survived!]
“The human rights issue is presently raised as a top priority item on both the local and international agendas,” the book says. “Several human rights organizations were also established with purpose of protecting basic public freedoms. The result was the adoption of a host of international human rights agreements and declarations, to which Egypt is a signatory party.”
The author then takes us on a stroll down old-memory lane. Pharaonic Egypt, he says, was one of the earliest civilizations ever to show respect for human rights. The Ancient Egyptians were the first to acknowledge man’s right to life. A case in point would be that they deferred the execution of a convicted pregnant woman till she gave birth.
Ancient Egypt not only believed in but applied the principle of equality to its entire population. Egyptians were equal before the law, without discrimination between rich and poor, and/or free people and slaves. The Ancient Egyptians also encouraged both men and women to get a proper education.
Under Christianity, Egyptians found salvation from the injustices of they suffered under Roman Emperors.
Islam too preached equality and freed humanity from economic, political and social burdens.
So here, the book tells us, are some of the most important human rights principles that Egypt lives by and enforces:
"Freedom of opinion is guaranteed. "Every individual has the right to express his opinion and to publicize it verbally or in writing or by photography or by other means within the limits of the law.
Self-criticism and constructive criticism is the guarantee for the safety of the national structure."
“Freedom of the press, printing, publication and mass media shall be guaranteed. Censorship on newspapers is forbidden as well as notifying, suspending or canceling them by administrative methods.
"Education is a right guaranteed by the State."
"The State shall supervise all branches of education and guarantee the independence of universities and scientific research centers, with a view to linking all this with the requirements of society and production."
“Sovereignty is for the people alone and they are the source of authority."
"The political system of the Arab Republic of Egypt is a multiparty one, within the framework of the basic elements and principles of the Egyptian society as stipulated in the Constitution. Political parties are regulated by law."
"The State shall guarantee equality of opportunity to all citizens."
"The family is the basis of the society founded on religion, morality and patriotism."
"The State shall guarantee the protection of motherhood and childhood, take care of children and youth and provide the suitable conditions for the development of their talents."
“The State shall guarantee the proper coordination between the duties of woman towards the family and her work in the society, considering her equal with man in the fields of political, social, cultural and economic life without violation of the rules of Islamic jurisprudence."
“The State- shall guarantee social and health insurance services and all the citizens have the right to pensions in cases of incapacity, unemployment and old-age, in accordance with the law."
“The national economy shall be organized in accordance with a comprehensive development plan which ensures raising the national income, fair distribution, raising the standard of living, eliminating unemployment, increasing work opportunities, connecting wages with production, fixing a minimum and a maximum limit for wages in a manner which guarantees lessening the disparities between incomes."
“Every citizen shall have a share in the national revenue to be defined by the law in accordance with his work or his unexploiting ownership."
All citizens are equal before the law. They have equal public rights and duties without discrimination between them due to race, ethnic origin, language, religion or creed."
“Individual freedom is a natural right and shall not be touched.”
“Any person arrested, detained or his freedom restricted shall be treated in the manner concomitant with the preservation of his dignity. "No physical or moral harm is to be inflicted upon him.
He may not be detained or imprisoned except in places defined by laws organizing prisons. If a confession is proved to have been made by a person under any of the aforementioned forms of duress or coercion, it shall be considered invalid and futile."
“The State shall guarantee the freedom of belief and the freedom of practice of religious rites.”
“The right to political asylum shall be guaranteed by the State for every foreigner persecuted for defending the peoples’ interests, human rights, peace or justice. "The extradition of political refugees is prohibited.
“The creation of syndicates and unions on a democratic basis is a right guaranteed by law, and should have a moral entity. "The law regulates the participation of syndicates and unions in carrying out the social programs and plans, raising the standard of efficiency, consolidating the socialist behavior among their members, and safeguarding their funds. "They are responsible for questioning their members about their behavior in exercising their activities according to certain codes of morals, and for defending the rights and liberties of their members as defined in the law."
“Citizens shall have the right to vote, nominate and express their opinions in referendums according to the provisions of the law."
"Their participation in public life is a national duty."
A suspect assumed innocent proven guilty: “Any defendant is innocent until he is proved guilty before a legal court, in which he is granted the right to defend himself.
"Every person accused of a crime must be provided with counsel for his defense."
Perhaps, just for a chuckle, let me mention again The National Council for Human Rights,” which was set up on June 12, 2003 under law No. 94 of 2003. Operating under the Shura Council, it aims at promoting and protecting human rights, and safeguarding public freedom.
As noted earlier, The Council is chaired by Dr. Boutros Ghali, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, with Dr. Ahmed Kamal Abul-Magd as Deputy-Chief and 25 public figures as members.
The Council’s goals are to serve as a tool to enhance democracy, ensuring public freedom and safeguarding human rights. And, for an avid scavenger this piece of carrion is a true find.
The Council was founded during the years I lived in Egypt. As an official of USAID I made it my business to follow its work closely, or at least at any part of Egyptian government allows you to follow it closely.
I found, among the ranks, many people who were not Mubarak cronies, people who cared deeply about the abuses they were finding, and people who were profoundly frustrated by their inability to reverse injustice, or even to get a hearing.
One could only feel sympathy for these men and women. They were NOT part of the problem.
So how, we ask, could a state so totally committed on paper to all the rights, duties and privileges of being human so degrade itself as to provoke deep disgust among free people everywhere?
How is it that a state that guarantees free expression of opinion and ideas, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, the right to health care and a decent education – how is it that such a litany of social goods degenerate into a gruesome tale of cavalier disregard for law, imprisonment without charge, torture and death in detention, men and women with three and four-year-old master’s degrees who have never had a job!
Small wonder that, as The Times Tom Friedman wrote today, “the lids are coming off.”
* = The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, not the U.S. Declaration of Human Rights. The author evidently meant the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was approved by the United Nations in 1948.