Harsh questions for Egypt amid U.N. rights review

Tomorrow, more than a hundred states will individually raise legitimately tough questions about Egypt’s human rights record of the past four years

H.A. Hellyer
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Tomorrow, the United Nations will see the Egyptian state being put in the spotlight in Geneva in a way that would make the most accomplished country in the field of human rights feel uncomfortable. Under the auspices of the Human Rights Council, Egypt, along with all U.N. Member States, will have their human rights record reviewed under the ‘Universal Periodic Review’ (UPR) – and there will be many in Geneva who will have some rather harsh questions. It’s an opportunity for the Egyptian state – but few are holding out for the possibility that it will take it.

The UPR happens every four years, after having been instituted in 2006 by the UN’s General Assembly, as one of the key elements of the Human Rights Council that was created in the same process. No other universal mechanism that reviews the human rights records of all 193 U.N. Member States currently exists. Since Egypt’s last periodic review in 2010, much has taken place in the field of human rights – with the human rights community inside and outside of Egypt almost unanimously agreeing there has been a general deterioration.

Tomorrow, more than a hundred states will individually raise legitimately tough questions about Egypt’s human rights record of the past four years

H.A. Hellyer

It would be good if the UPR was a scene for purely human rights specialists to examine and detail the flaws and failings of member states, in a legalistic manner, that drew attention to the universal treaties that member states have signed, and judging them according to the standards they themselves have agreed to uphold. It isn’t. The UPR is, as with much in the UN, a political fight – one that has begun before anyone even arrives in Geneva. Member states question each other’s records – and their questions will naturally follow their political analysis of the countries in question. Allies will get off with a slap on a wrist – foes and adversaries can expect much harsher treatment.

Egypt is in a rather interesting position. There will be, essentially, three groups in Geneva, with intimate engagement on the Egyptian file. The first will be the Egyptian state, whose main imperative will be to insist that the Egyptian authorities are moving forward in protecting human rights, and denouncing any attempts to make it seem as though Egypt is not living up to its obligations. That, in essence, is the lost opportunity to Egypt – the UPR is an opportunity to show that actually, the authorities take these criticisms around its human rights record seriously. The Egyptian state takes these criticisms as either naïve (in other words, uninformed) or secretly aimed at bringing down the Egyptian state. Locked into that paradigm, there’s little expectation it will actually engage seriously with genuine criticisms.

The second group will be the pro-Mursi, Muslim Brotherhood camp. It, of course, cannot question Egypt in the midst of the UPR – that privilege is reserved for states – but it has lobbied member states to ask questions that relate to its political imperative. Indeed, it has sent a delegation to Geneva to do that on the side-lines of the UPR as well. Most member states already, however, find the Brotherhood’s campaign somewhat disingenuous. The narrative of the Brotherhood and its allies when it comes to human rights is that there was a revolution in 2011, an election in 2012, a coup in 2013, and human rights deteriorate from them on. That narrative is promoted by the Brotherhood directly, as well as by new organizations founded after Mursi’s ouster last year that are ostensibly concerned with human rights. Member states, however, generally don’t take the narrative seriously, because it fails to note any lack of accountability during 2011-2013, when the Brotherhood were in a position to effect positive change. On the contrary, according to human rights groups at the time, the Brotherhood stood in the way of holding parties accountable for their violations.

Then, the final group – those who have been pushing for improvements in fundamental rights in Egypt since before the revolutionary uprising in 2011. By and large, they won’t be in Geneva. They have made their submission to the UPR, as a collective of almost two dozen organizations, which tackles the violations held throughout 2010 – 2014, whether under Mubarak, Tantawi, Mursi or Sisi. In Egypt, many of these organizations are under fire, suspecting that under new NGO regulations that are scheduled to be implemented this month, they will either be severely restricted or shut down.

Political football

Those human rights organizations published criticisms of the Mursi government with much fan-fare by anti-Islamists in 2011-2013 – but now are systematically accused of being foreign agents by the nationalist press and those same anti-Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood will often use their reports to brief against the Egyptian government – but as those groups criticized the Brotherhood, they’re described as ‘arms of Western injustice that strive to eradicate the Islamic identity’.

That last group needs support – organizations that have been both impartial to successive governments from 2010-2014 and to specific political forces. They are the eyes on government and the public’s watchdogs on the state’s performance. They are not fifth columnists – they are a part of Egypt’s conscience. Egypt is not weakened by their efforts – on the contrary, Egypt would be stronger if her authorities empowered those very efforts.

Tomorrow, more than a hundred states will individually raise legitimately tough questions about Egypt’s human rights record of the past four years. Egypt has a chance to address those concerns fully, comprehensively, and without reservation – instead, it is likely that human rights violations will, yet again, be a political football between the state, the Brotherhood and their allies. The irony is: the only group that has been consistent on these issues for the last four years, won’t be on center stage in Geneva. Mostly, they’ll be back in Egypt, hoping that at the next UPR four years from now, they will still exist, and will not have been forced to close, as civil society space in the country diminishes even further.

Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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