The German magazine “Die Welt” published an interview with the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, this week. The interview covered several domestic and regional issues; ranging from Egypt’s Human rights situation and overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood up to illegal migration from North Africa to Europe and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Allegedly, the most important topic that was discussed in this interview is the critical question on whether Egypt’s policy on giving the priority to preserving state security contradicts with advancing human rights and availing more space for civil freedoms.
Human rights issues have always been a daunting issue in Egypt’s relations with the United States and Europe. That was the case under Mubarak and after the Arab Spring revolution, and this is the case today under El-Sisi. The policy currently adopted by the Egyptian state on prioritizing national security and economic development to opening a greater space for civil freedoms and human rights has always been difficult for Europeans to consume.
On his most recent visit to France, in December, President El-Sisi and his French counterpart Macron had a live debate on human rights, at the press conference, following their private meeting. On one hand, President Macron hinted that France is not going to bring up the human rights issue in its talks with Egypt, in order not to upset Egypt and disturb cooperation on other important issues.
On the other hand, President El-Sisi noted that “the Egyptian state has been fighting an extremist Islamist organization that has been wreaking havoc in Egypt for over 90 years (in reference to the Muslim Brotherhood). It is not fair to label the Egyptian state as an authoritarian regime because we are fighting extremism.”
When asked about the Muslim Brotherhood by the Die Welt interviewer, El-Sisi said that “this group was not up to the huge problems that could have resulted in a civil war-like some other countries in the region. The Muslim Brotherhood is trying to convey a negative impression about the human rights situation, democracy, and freedom in Egypt to build up pressure from Europe.”
“Criticism is permissible for everyone, but it must be constructive criticism, not incitement;” said President El-Sisi to Die Welt. “Stability is very important, especially in a country like Egypt with a population of 100 million people;60% of which are youth… We need a constitutional state, but incitement to overthrow the political regime is dangerous and unacceptable.” Then President El-Sisi affirmed that “security should not come at the expense of freedom, even in a country suffering from difficult conditions like Egypt.”
No one could claim that Egypt is an ideal country wherein human rights principles are fully guaranteed and respected. Egypt suffers from chronic deficiencies on this issue, mostly inherited from the long era of corruption and tyranny under Mubarak.
The Egyptian state does not deny this fact and has been sincerely working, for five years, to improve human rights conditions, amidst countless political and security challenges. Despite the delay on reforming civil and political rights, Egypt witnessed a leap on improving economic, social, and cultural rights, thanks to new legislative amendments and national projects targeting improving health, housing, and security conditions, as well as protecting freedom of religion.
Getting back on the track of democratization, after removing the Muslim Brotherhood from power, in 2013, was not an easy task. The Muslim Brotherhood was not as accepting as Mubarak and his affiliates to the political defeat they encountered.
They swore to ensue death and blood against those who removed them from power. They targeted innocent civilians, military personnel, policemen, and state institutions, with the purpose to create a state of extreme chaos, similar to the post Arab Spring Syria or Libya, so they can find their way back in power, as a “parallel” government. It was impossible to pursue democratic reform under this constant security threat.
For two years, between 2013 and 2015, Egypt was heavily invested in controlling that domestic security threat, while lobbying international support for the new elected political regime of President El-Sisi. By 2016, the police forces managed to successfully restore security in the main cities, including the capital city of Cairo, while the military was busy with the war on Islamist terrorist groups in northern Sinai. Hence, the Egyptian state got a chance to plan for socio-political reform.
For President El-Sisi, social and economic reform was a higher priority to democratization and political reform. While this approach invigorated a lot of media criticism against El-Sisi’s regime, the time has proven its validity for the unique case of Egypt. It was almost impossible to rush into building a liberal democratic state, in a country that suffers from strong political divisions, severe economic depression, and lack of security.
Nigeria is one example of many states that failed by rushing into western-style democratic reform before laying the proper foundation for a stable democratic state, by first stabilizing the economy and improving the state of security and social development.