Monday,28 May, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)
Monday,28 May, 2018
Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The human rights issue

Foreign media coverage of Egypt is too often poisoned by the strong dislike many foreign journalists have for the Egyptian regime, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

It is not a secret that the human rights situation in Egypt is the direct cause of hostile coverage by the foreign media and a constant irritation for the regime and its supporters.

The authorities and their supporters say different things, among them that this issue is used by the Western powers for extracting concessions and that it weakens Egypt’s stance during negotiations. “Adopt the foreign policies we endorse, or else,” is what these powers say, and according to this line of reasoning, human rights issues are just a tool for the Western powers to get what they want. Human rights NGOs provide the Western powers with ammunition and arguments and should thus be considered as hostile, such people say.

Secondly, there is the context of the issue, they say. By context, they mean different things, the most obvious being the war on terrorism. France does not seem to know how to effectively monitor the 10,000 or so radicals it has on its soil. Egypt’s problem is much more serious, so it cannot afford leniency. Moreover, these radicals know how to infiltrate popular demonstrations and cause havoc, regime supporters say.

However, in private discussions pro-regime figures sometimes also say that conservative sectors of society, and some key religious institutions, both Muslim and Christian, have problems with a lot of human rights issues, from freedom of speech and faith to the death penalty, not to mention rights for homosexuals. On such issues the regime feels compelled to proceed with the utmost caution, especially as it is competing for religious legitimacy with many other players, these figures say.

Before the devaluation of the Egyptian pound in November and its disastrous impact on the poorest sections of the population, many people, including high-ranking officials, had stressed the absolute priority of the fight against poverty in Egypt, adding the implicit message that we will achieve significant progress on this issue and this will outshine anything that is less likeable in our policies.

Thirdly, many pro-regime figures simply do not like human rights activists for various local and historical reasons. Many of these activists stem from the ranks of the extreme left in the 1970s, the student generation which opposed former president Anwar Al-Sadat and organised the 1972 demonstrations against his regime. As a result, such activists have been persona non grata for the authorities, and before the second half of the 1980s especially this was a terrible problem for them as the state was still the main employer in Egypt.

Members of the extreme left were expelled from the universities by a coalition of Al-Sadat supporters and Islamist radicals. Many of these young people, frustrated by the left-wing parties that were tolerated by the regime and that respected the “red lines” it laid down, responded by creating their own NGOs, became human rights activists and looked for foreign funding as Egyptian funding was non-existent. For the state and its security apparatus, these people had simply found new tools and foreign support for their struggle against the state.

The activists later went on to create the Kifaya Movement and to pave the way for the 25 January Revolution. Many state supporters sincerely believe that these activists and their NGOs have adapted their discourse to the needs of Western states and civil society. Their work is not professional, they say, and they have pointed to serious mistakes in some human rights reports on Egypt. Moreover, the activists are said to be well-paid from foreign funds and to have salaries defined by international standards and not by local ones. They focus on the state’s violations and turn a blind eye to the Islamists’ exactions and killings, their critics say.

From time to time, the authorities officially evoke this context and call for a redefinition of human rights. The international human rights network strongly criticises the Egyptian state’s claims, however, saying that evoking this context is tantamount to saying that we will continue to violate human rights and will not try to improve our record. This, they say, is simply giving a license to state employees to continue their misdeeds.

Calls for a redefinition of human rights are countered by the obvious argument that torture and extra-legal killings should be forbidden everywhere. The NGOs quote studies that say there is evidence that torture is counter-productive and that it does not give reliable information. In reply, some officials say that such studies are not conclusive, giving counter-examples. They say that the security challenges in Egypt are real and that the danger is clear and present. The NGOs say that human rights violations feed extremism and terrorism, and the regime says that winning the battle of ideas and hearts and minds will necessarily take a long time to succeed.

I am unable to discuss all the relevant points here, but suffice it to say here that some human rights are universal. Nobody can seriously claim that torture is a “local custom” that ought to be respected. But, of course, other human rights are not universal in the same way, even if I am not completely happy about stating this. There is a huge cultural difference between countries that have abolished the death penalty and others that have not, for example. The divide runs deep, and the definition of state sovereignty is no longer the same. When you abolish the death penalty, you basically say that the state does not have the right to take life. When you maintain it, you say the contrary.

Another clear divide opposes those like me who say that we are engaged in a war and others who deny this claim. Of course, being at war does not excuse everything. But changing old practices, even dreadful ones, is much more difficult during a war that is taking hundreds of lives. The argument that we are engaged in a war may be much stronger than the one that simply says that our culture is different from yours.

I do not like the standard accusation that says that journalists who report human rights abuses should stop doing their jobs and become activists. Journalists should report on what they see, and if did not do so they would not be professional journalists.

However, it remains true that the foreign media coverage of Egypt is more often than not unfair to the regime. It is not unfair because it evokes human rights: It is unfair because it wrongly assumes that a regime that has a human rights problem cannot do anything right as a result. It cannot be popular; it cannot defend the general interest; it cannot care for the people; it is not serious when it says it wants to improve the lot of the poor.

In other words, the foreign media coverage of these crucial issues is poisoned by the strong dislike many foreign journalists have for the regime. And their coverage has negative consequences for the country’s image.

 The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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