The Discursive Construction of Human Rights in Post-Coup Egypt

Since the July 2013 overthrow of Egypt’s first-ever freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s military-backed government has cracked down on political opposition, and, in the process, committed numerous transgressions against basic human rights. Egypt’s recent rights record is, by nearly all measures, poor. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Human Rights Monitor, the International Federation for Human Rights, Freedom House, and other regional and international rights groups, as well as numerous independent academic experts and foreign governments, have condemned what they consider to be a series of gross human rights violations committed by the Egyptian government. The list of violations includes the banning of political opposition parties, the shutting down of opposition media and charities, mass killings, mass arrests, widespread torture, forced disappearances, and the largest mass death sentences in modern world history, among other listed transgressions. Human Rights Watch has written that Egypt’s current human rights crisis is “the most serious in the country’s modern history.

Since the July 2013 overthrow of Egypt’s first-ever freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s military-backed government has cracked down on political opposition, and, in the process, committed numerous transgressions against basic human rights. Egypt’s recent rights record is, by nearly all measures, poor. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Human Rights Monitor, the International Federation for Human Rights, Freedom House, and other regional and international rights groups, as well as numerous independent academic experts and foreign governments, have condemned what they consider to be a series of gross human rights violations committed by the Egyptian government. The list of violations includes the banning of political opposition parties, the shutting down of opposition media and charities, mass killings, mass arrests, widespread torture, forced disappearances, and the largest mass death sentences in modern world history, among other listed transgressions. Human Rights Watch has written that Egypt’s current human rights crisis is “the most serious in the country’s modern history.”

Rather than examine Egypt’s recent human rights record — about which there is little disagreement in international human rights and academic circles — this analysis considers dominant Egyptian discourses about human rights. How have the Egyptian government and Egyptian media addressed Egypt’s human rights crisis? How have the Egyptian government and Egyptian media discursively constructed the idea of human rights? Given the extent to which Egyptian media have acted as mouthpieces for the Egyptian government, examining Egyptian media content, in addition to government statements, is important.

Two distinct discourses about human rights dominate Egypt’s current political and media environments. One discourse propounded by prominent Egyptian media figures suggests that Egypt should abandon, at least temporarily, focusing on human rights, freedom and democracy. A second discourse runs counter to suggestions that Egypt’s human rights record is poor. This discourse — found prominently in official government statements and interviews and national human rights reports produced by the National Council for Human Rights — implies that Egypt’s current human rights record is favorable, and that western human rights organizations are unfairly biased against Egypt.

Abandon Human Rights, Democracy, and Freedom

Prominent Egyptian media figures have repeatedly suggested that Egypt’s current political crisis — and specifically Egypt’s “war against terrorism” — is not conducive to human rights, democracy and freedom. OnTv Network’s Youssef El-Huseiny has suggested in multiple episodes of his show, “The Respectable Gentlemen,” that Egypt should temporarily suspend discussions of human rights. In one episode, he said, “Let’s leave human rights until later, and animal rights until later, and freedoms until later.”

Rotana Masriya Network’s Tamir Amin has argued similarly. On the October 25, 2014 episode of his nationally televised show, “To The Point,” after proclaiming his general admiration for human rights and democracy and expressing hope that Egypt could one day aspire to them, Amin went on a nearly 30-minute diatribe, during which he argued that Egypt’s present security situation requires the abandonment of discussions about human rights, freedom and democracy. He stated, “It is not the time to talk about [human rights and democracy]. It’s not time to talk about those things now. Those things [will come] later… Security comes before bread, and before freedom, and before human rights, and before democracy… We are in an existential war… [and] existential war is not a joke… There is no ‘but’, there is no ‘what if’… [The question is] Will you continue to exist, or not? Are we going to be a nation? Or are we going to be Iraq? … We are dealing with the security of Egypt, so may God’s curse be upon democracy, and may God’s curse be upon human rights.” Amin went on to encourage his viewers to sacrifice their constitutional rights for the good of the nation. As if to lead by example, Amin said, “I, Tamir Amin, give up all of my constitutional rights because that is for the benefit of the nation.”

Other prominent Egyptian television news hosts have expressed similar sentiments. Faraeen Network’s Tawfeek Okasha dedicated a segment on his “Egypt Today” show to attacking human rights workers and organizations, comparing them to insects and arguing that they are conspiring against Egypt.  Also, on his program “My Responsibility”, prominent Sada Al-Balad network personality Ahmed Mousa said, “Whoever wants to talk about human rights can burn. He and the terrorists are one and the same.”

Mousa and other media personalities and pundits have also argued repeatedly that Egypt’s government has been too lenient on political opposition, implying that the government has been overly concerned with western human rights ideals. Egyptian satellite networks have run lengthy segments explaining that Egypt’s security forces should have dispersed Muslim Brotherhood protest sites sooner, justifying the use of deadly force against protesters, demanding an end to all protests, and calling for the complete suspension of due process for “terrorists.”

Egypt’s recent government policy is consistent with the views of media personalities. After a mass killing by security forces of mostly unarmed protesters on August 14, 2013, Egypt’s government praised the security forces, hailed them as heroes, and erected monuments in their honor. Also, after a terrorist attack killed Egypt’s Attorney General in late June 2015, current President Abdelfattah Al-Sisi seemed to implicitly accept the notion that his government was being too lenient. Specifically, Sisi promised swifter justice and suggested that due process should be sacrificed if trials were too lengthy. He said, “The hand of justice is tied by [the] law… We will not wait for that. We will not sit for five or 10 years putting on trial the people who kill us… We will not wait for years to prosecute militants, who give orders for their deadly attacks from inside their prison cells.”

In the aftermath of the assassination, Egypt’s government sped along plans to pass new anti-terrorism legislation. The new legislation, which was ultimately passed in mid-August 2015, “gives state security officers wider immunity from prosecution, expands the government’s surveillance powers and penalizes journalists for contradicting official accounts of militant attacks.”

Egypt’s Human Rights Record Favorable; Western Rights Groups Biased

Egypt’s government has largely ignored the conclusions and recommendations of western human rights organizations. Human Rights Watch’s comprehensive 2014 report on mass killings of protesters in Egypt reproduces numerous formal letters it sent to the Egyptian government, noting that the government failed to respond to the letters or acknowledge any of the included inquires or recommendations.

On the rare instances when the Egyptian government has acknowledged western human rights reports, the government has denounced the reports as deeply flawed and the rights groups as biased. For instance, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry objected to a 2014 Amnesty International report on violence in Egypt. The Foreign Ministry released a statement denouncing the rights report as “imbalanced” and “imprecise.”  The statement also said that the report was inconsistent with “the will of the Egyptian people.”

In one telling example of the Egyptian government’s position on western human rights work, official Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zaid, appearing on the Mehwar network’s program “90 Minutes,” said that Human Rights Watch is a “suspicious” and politicized organization. Responding to questions about Human Rights Watch’s 2015 report on Egypt, Abu Zaid characterized the report as repetitive, biased, and as an attempt to sway international public opinion against Egypt. He objected to the report’s emphasis on civilian casualties and lack of emphasis on the comparatively few police and military casualties, saying that the report was an attempt to “throw Egypt into despair.” Abu Zaid said that Egypt’s policy would not be affected by the report. He noted that although Egypt’s government typically ignores and does not respond to international human rights reports, the government felt compelled to respond in this specific case because of the particularly problematic nature of the report.

For his part, the “90 Minutes” lead presenter, Motaz Billah Abdelfattah, said that Human Rights Watch is loyal to the United States government and was established with the primary objective of exposing America’s enemies. Abdel Fattah also argued that the organization’s 2015 report on Egypt seeks to “whiten the face of terrorism,” and “blacken the face of the [Egyptian] government.” Abu Zaid agreed with Abdelfattah’s assessment, replying with, “certainly.” Near the end of the segment, Abdelfattah concluded, “the report was laughable, as you, your Excellency, have pointed out.”

Egypt’s government also sharply criticized the Obama administration’s June 2015 characterization of the human rights situation in Egypt, and press outlets have ran articles rebuking western human rights groups. For example, Al-Wafd newspaper ran an article titled, “Human Rights Watch: the suspicious organization on the record of human rights.”

Egypt’s own National Council for Human Rights has itself produced multiple reports regarding Egypt’s post-July 2013 human rights record. While sometimes documenting violations by Egypt’s government, the reports largely gloss over or downplay government-perpetrated transgressions, while highlighting infractions by militants and members of Egypt’s political opposition. The National Council for Human Rights has also criticized western human rights reports as deeply flawed. Another Egyptian rights organization, the Egyptian Union of Human Rights (EUHR) has recently filed a lawsuit to “expel Human Rights Watch from [Egypt].”

Conclusion

Over the past two years, Egypt’s government has struggled to reconcile statements respecting human rights found in the Egyptian Constitution and new Egyptian legislation on the one hand, and the country’s actual rights record on the other. The preamble to Egypt’s 2014 Constitution says, “We are drafting a Constitution that paves the way to the future for us, and which is consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which we participated in drafting and adopted.” Article 5 of the Constitution says, “The political system is based on political and partisan pluralism… and respect for human rights and freedoms.” Article 24 decrees that “Universities shall teach human rights,” while Article 93 says that “The State shall be bound by the international human rights agreements, covenants and conventions ratified by Egypt, and which shall have the force of law after publication in accordance with the prescribed conditions.”

Given Egypt’s stated respect for human rights principles, the numerous human rights violations committed by Egypt’s post-July 2013 government have posed a significant political problem for the nation. As explained here, Egypt’s government and loyal media apparatus have attempted to address obvious contradictions (between Egypt’s human rights record on one hand, and the country’s legal obligation to observe respect for human rights on the other) by attempting to situate the entire discussion of human rights within its “war on terrorism” framework. Common discursive formations suggest that individuals deemed to be terrorists are undeserving of human rights. Widespread application of the terrorist designation has effectively allowed Egypt to ignore human rights violations. Popular television presenter Motaz Billah Abdelfattah framed the situation as follows on his “90 Minutes” program: Human Rights Watch wants terrorists to “have the right to create chaos” and implies that the Egyptian government is “wrong to violate their rights to perpetrate terrorism”.

Importantly, current discourses on human rights in Egypt are being produced in the context of an unprecedented campaign of hypernationalism that exalts the Egyptian military and police and posits that Egypt is a victim of a large global conspiracy. According to the conspiracy theory — and as Egyptian media figures have repeatedly alleged — the Muslim Brotherhood is actively collaborating with the United States, Israel, Turkey, Qatar, and various international media — including Al-Jazeera, CNN, and the New York Times — to undermine and destabilize the Egyptian state.

The government has done little to quell such notions. On the contrary, some government statements and policies suggest that the government has bought into the conspiratorial thinking. Government officials have sometimes made veiled references to the alleged global conspiracy against Egypt, and have also attacked international media outlets for their alleged bias against the country. Egypt has recently launched an English-language blog to counter “inaccurate” international press reports. Previously, the government hired a public relations firm, Washington-based Glove Park Group, to help repair the nation’s image.

Tensions will persist as long as dominant Egyptian definition of human rights continue to diverge sharply from international norms.  

1 Human Rights Watch, World Report 2015: Egypt. New York: 2015. Accessed August 30, 2015. https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2015/country-chapters/egypt  

2 Elmasry, Mohamad. “The Rabaa Massacre and Egyptian Propaganda.” Middle East Eye, August 13, 2015. Accessed August 30, 2015. http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/rabaa-massacre-and-egyptian-propaganda-131958993

El-Huseiny, Youssef. “The Respectable Gentlemen.” OnTv. Accessed August 30, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FAIdjcHv7A

Amin, Tamir. “To the Point.” Rotana Masriya. Accessed August 31, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFW8ku5MXFg

Okasha, Tawfeek. “Egypt Today.” Faraeen. Accessed August 31, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yw6MmUpVRKY

Mousa, Ahmed. Sada Al-Balad. Accessed September 1, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eQEm4r1KZc

Wright, Alex. “Egypt’s Sisi promises new crackdown and ‘rapid justice’”. Alaraby, July 1, 2015. Accessed September 2, 2015. http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2015/7/1/egypts-sisi-promises-new-crackdown-and-rapid-justice

Fahim, Kareem, & Thomas, Merna. “Egypt Widens Government Power with New Anti-Terrorism Law.” New York Times, August 17, 2015. Accessed September 2, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/18/world/middleeast/egypt-widens-government-power-with-new-anti-terrorism-law.html?_r=0

Human Rights Watch, All According to Plan: The Rab’a Massacre and Mass Killings of Protesters in Egypt. New York: 2015. Accessed August 30, 2015. https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/08/12/all-according-plan/raba-massacre-and-mass-killings-protesters-egypt

10 BBC Arabic. “Egypt’s Government Criticizes Amnesty International’s Report on ‘the violence of the state.’” BBC Arabic. January 23, 2014. Accessed September 2, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/arabic/middleeast/2014/01/140123_egypt_violence_amnesty_reaction

11

Mehwar TV Channel, “90 Minutes.” Mehwar TV Channel, August 14, 2015. Accessed on August 30, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L9hOsEmiZfo

12 Ra’i Al-Yawm. “Egypt’s Foreign Ministry criticizes the Obama administration’s report on human rights in Egypt.” Ra’i Al-Yawm. June 8, 2015. Accessed September 2, 2015. http://www.raialyoum.com/?p=269312

13 Al-Wafd. “Human Rights Watch: the suspicious organization in the file of human rights.” Al-Wafd. June 9, 2015. Accessed September 2, 2015. http://m.alwafd.org/%D8%A3%D8%AE%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D9%88%D8%AA%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%B1/863813-%D9%87%D9%8A%D9%88%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%8A%D8%AA%D8%B3-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D9%86%D8%B8%D9%85%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%B4%D8%A8%D9%88%D9%87%D8%A9-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%B3%D8%AC%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%AD%D9%82%D9%88%D9%82-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A5%D9%86%D8%B3%D8%A7%D9%86

14 Mada Masr. “Egyptian rights organization files lawsuit to expel Human Rights Watch from country.” Mada Masr. August 23, 2015. Accessed August 24, 2015. http://www.madamasr.com/news/egyptian-rights-organization-files-lawsuit-expel-human-rights-watch-country

15 State Information Service. Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt 2014. Cairo: 2014. Accessed August 31, 2015. http://www.sis.gov.eg/Newvr/Dustor-en001.pdf

16 Mehwar TV Channel, “90 Minutes.” Mehwar TV Channel, August 14, 2015. Accessed on August 30, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L9hOsEmiZfo

17 Elmasry, Mohamad. “The Rabaa Massacre and Egyptian Propaganda.” Middle East Eye, August 13, 2015. Accessed August 30, 2015. http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/rabaa-massacre-and-egyptian-propaganda-131958993

18 Westcott, L. “Egypt Launches English-Language Blog in Response to ‘Innacurate’ Press.” Newsweek. August 27, 2015. Accessed September 2, 2015. http://www.newsweek.com/egyptian-government-launches-english-language-blog-response-inaccurate-366358?piano_t=1

19 Kamen, Al. “Egypt junta hires Glover Park Group.” The Washington Post. October 25, 2013. Accessed August 30, 2015. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/in-the-loop/wp/2013/10/25/egypt-junta-hires-glover-park-group/

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