The anti-human rights revolution

What appeared to be a revolution against a dictator turned out to be completely the opposite.

The June 30 “revolution” was one of the trickiest things that ever happened in modern Egyptian history. It started with an uprising against the rule of former President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood after they proved unable to run the country. Millions went to the streets demanding Morsi’s removal, supported by Al-Azhar and the Coptic church, in a scene that would trick any political expert or enthusiastic January 25 revolutionist — including someone like Mohamed ElBaradei, with all his history and experience, and … ahem … including my good self.

It was very easy to fall in the trap and believe that you were fighting a dictator, but the majority had a completely different vision of what was to come. Once the army stepped in and arrested the president, the true face of June 30 revealed itself. It wasn’t a revolution against dictatorship; it was against one specific dictator, while calling for another dictator to take his place.

I have to admit that it took me two days to realize what was going on, while my Canadian wife and my half-British, half-Egyptian friend understood right away — but I didn’t listen to them. The army opened fire at civilians two days after June 30 in front of the Republican Guards Club, and it was at this moment that I realized what was really happening. It took ElBaradei a month and half and a massacre of hundreds to get it.

This uprising wasn’t about bringing back rights and freedoms and getting rid of a vicious dictator. Rather, it was calling for a specific dictatorship: the military.

All of a sudden, Egypt was engulfed in an overwhelming, euphoric, even orgasmic wave of chauvinism embodied in the “war on terrorism” that was declared against the Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptians were surprised that the whole world seemed to be against us, failing to see how the rest of the world was shocked by how quickly the ruling party that people voted for a year ago was declared an illegal terrorist group.

In an unprecedented moment, we are currently witnessing public support for human rights violations. The stereotypical idea that only governments are against human rights has been proven wrong, as the majority of Egyptians reveal their open rejection of the concept of human rights. We have seen people calling for sacrificing their own rights and freedoms, just to see their opposition removed. We, the human rights advocacy community, have been called traitors by friends and family members. People began openly calling for abandoning human rights altogether in the name of fighting “terrorism.”

After I woke from the shock, I became aware of some basic facts.

First, people don’t know what human rights are. They regard human rights as idealistic morals adopted by dreamers, or those deluded by humanistic tendencies. There is a failure to understand the fact that human rights are actually encoded in international law, and are binding on the Egyptian government by virtue of the country having signed and ratified international human rights documents, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights.

Some people have decided that there is no place for human rights while national security is at risk, undermining the fact that it in actuality is not an option to drop human rights measures, as long as Egypt is party to such treaties and part of the United Nations. I was struck by Egyptians’ total ignorance of what international law is, despite the fact that it is mentioned in each version of Egypt’s constitution, and that international law is part of domestic legislation. Meanwhile, a minority understands what human rights are, but they decided to go against them, and even called on the Egyptian government to withdraw from international treaties.

People forgot that these human rights treaties are signed in order to guarantee citizens a better life, and to hold governments accountable. The majority in Egypt, however, is currently endorsing the ruling military’s violations as long as they are committed against their enemies. They forget that once human rights are dropped, no one is safe.  

The second fact I became aware of relates to the condition of the human rights movement. At a time when human rights activists and organizations were supposed to have a neutral stand respected by all sides, the human rights community was attacked and categorized as enemies of the people. Instead of realizing that statements issued by the human rights community are based on a fixed and clear reference — international law — people believed that they were serving a foreign agenda trying to bring down the regime and cause chaos in the country.

Before attacking the common people and accusing them of ignorance, we have to admit that we too are at fault. Before the January 25 revolution, the human rights movement was trying to maintain a neutral position while condemning the violations perpetrated by the regime and its executive branch. After January 25, most human rights activists were taking a more politicized position, while ignoring the basic references of international law.

It was somehow justifiable during the January 25 revolution due to the similarities of the revolution’s objectives and those of human rights, such as equality and freedom. But this shift caused damage on both sides. The human rights movement lost its neutrality and credibility, while the revolution was attacked by some who called it a part of a foreign agenda, because it was calling for the application of human rights standards.

The challenge now is much harder than what it was under former President Hosni Mubarak. Now, those who are supposed to be defending it reject the human rights movement. The challenge now is to try to restore the neutrality and credibility the movement has lost. This has to be done by reminding people what human rights are, and that the application of human rights all the time is an obligation under the binding documents signed by Egypt.  

It’s also important to remember that Egypt will be reviewed early next year at the United Nations International Council for Human Rights as part of the Universal Periodical Review mechanism. Failing to present a better human rights record might result in the Council imposing penalties on Egypt, such as blacklisting it as a country with a poor human rights profile. 

Human rights activists should reconsider their positions. They must stick to international human rights law as a reference in all situations, and avoid making any statements that could be considered politically biased. Restoring the credibility of the human rights movement should be a priority on our agenda. People need to trust the human rights movement and realize that we are not on one side against the other, and that we will continue to condemn violations under military rule just as we did under Muslim Brotherhood rule.

The fact is that the human rights movement will always be against regimes, because under international law these are the actors that can commit human rights violations.

The human rights movement cannot be rejected by the people — it was created for their sake, after all. 

Sherif Azer is an Egyptian human rights activist. He is currently the Middle East and North Africa Coordinator for Front Line Defenders and the Assistant Secretary General of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. 

Ania Szremski 

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