All We Ask: An Open Letter From Egypt on its Commitment to Human Rights

Fri, Mar. 31, 2017
To all interested parties: Deep, profound change, to state the obvious, takes time. And today’s Egypt isn’t interested in short-term solutions — our purpose is to drive lasting, meaningful progress throughout our government and across our society. It’s truly a historic transition, and we’re just getting started — healing old wounds and stepping into a new era shaped by a stronger, more diverse democratic government, a young and highly educated population, and a dedication to serve both as an example of civil rights in the region and a leading force for peace and security across the Arab world. But for a country of 90 million people, transformation at the national scale will be a years-long work in progress. That’s what makes the bold new Egyptian Constitution, enacted by national referendum, such a critical framework for our government and such a vital guiding light for our entire civil society. It will take time to dismantle old institutional practices, but the government is already deeply engaged in reshaping public institutions to respect and enforce the significant reforms included in the Constitution. …reforms like establishing a clear separation of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, including term limits on the President and approval by Parliament of the appointment of the Prime Minister. …enfranchising citizens to vote in direct elections for their members of Parliament, so every member of society gets a say in the country’s future. …empowering Parliament with strong oversight authority over executive actions, including the ability to override a presidential veto on legislation it has drafted. …establishing the Egyptian judiciary as an independent check-and-balance, with the power to interpret the constitutionality of laws and even international treaties. …enshrining human dignity, freedom, and social justice as a core right of every citizen, with specific provisions on the rule of law, due process, public rights and freedoms, the right to safety and privacy, freedom of movement, freedom of belief and thought, and freedom of the press. There are those who doubt us. We take no offense. It’s only fair to ask how we plan to turn such lofty and far-reaching promises into bedrock realities in the daily lives of Egyptians. That starts with the Egyptians who helped draft this new Constitution: Our newly elected Parliament. The Egyptian Parliament today is the most diverse in our history. Never have there been more women, young people, or Coptic Christians in the ranks of our elected leaders. And that doesn’t just look good — it matters. Already, the rights of women in Egypt have seen significant advancements: Women have the right to hold public office and vote. Women are protected from discrimination in the workplace, and from all forms of violence. And women are empowered to choose their own attire, to drive, and to pursue education to the highest levels of study.
For many reading this, it may seem silly or self-indulgent to pat ourselves on the back for ensuring women are allowed to drive, or to access a full education. But to a new generation of Egyptian women, these declarations of equality make a profound difference. Then consider freedom of religion, another key marker of a free society that many in the West may take for granted. Among Arab states, Egypt is a leader in promoting religious tolerance and cultural inclusion, passing the only law in the Arab world that protects the rights of all citizens to build houses of worship, no matter their faith. This may not seem like much, but it is genuine progress, and it’s part of President Sisi’s personal commitment to the Egyptian people. The President regularly calls for religious discourse and encourages Muslim leaders to denounce misinterpretations of Islam and promote its true essence as a religion of peace and tolerance. In 2015, he became the first Egyptian head of state to attend Christmas mass at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo, declaring Egypt’s Muslims and Coptic Christians “one entity.”
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi talks next to Coptic Pope Tawadros II as he attends Christmas Eve mass at St. Mark’s Cathedral, the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Pope in Cairo, January 6, 2015.
And in 2016, following a spree of terrorist attacks by operatives of the Muslim Brotherhood that damaged or destroyed nearly 60 churches and properties, the President initiated a program to rebuild and restore every single one. Symbolic acts like this are important. That’s especially true in a climate where religious-based terrorism perpetrated by elements of the Muslim Brotherhood within Egypt, and by armed groups beyond our borders, are an ongoing threat. With extremist organizations actively seeking to undermine our government, disrupt our society, and destabilize our entire country, the difficult truth is that our leaders have and will continue to face tough choices. The goal, in every instance, will be to strike a balance that provides for both the security of the population and the rights and freedoms protected by the Constitution. So far, Egypt has been successful in limiting the impact of instability in the region — including from both neighboring Libya and Gaza — improving domestic security while advancing civil rights. Of course, as the recent controversy surrounding changes to Egypt’s NGO laws reveals, progress will not always be smooth and there will inevitably be setbacks as our nation deals with complex and necessary changes in society, particularly in light of security challenges. But progress will also undoubtedly continue. That NGO law, for example, takes strong steps forward to guarantee specific rights for Egyptian NGOs — limiting intervention by the state, including the military and police, in their daily activities, and encouraging private sector companies to donate to NGOs through the provision of a 10 percent tax deduction. But we can do better, and make no mistake — we plan to.
Download the fact sheet to learn more.