Maat for Peace, Development and Human Right has been working in Egypt since 2005 and officially registered as an NGO in 2008. Surviving and growing in an environment that has been rather restrictive on civil society, Maat is also working in partnership with the Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD) based in Norway, and the International Institute for Peace, Justice and Human Rights (IIPJHR) based in Switzerland. They had planned the biggest observation mission for the expected parliamentary elections, made upof over 1,000 local and 158 international observers from 31 states.
Daily News Egypt spoke to Ayman Okeil, General Manager of Maat, on the current political and human rights situation, in addition to the discussion about the parliament and the work of civil society in Egypt.
As a regular participant in international events, what is the situation of human rights in Egypt and how is it viewed abroad, for example in the UN Human Rights Council’s sessions in Geneva?
Let’s admit that there are human rights’ violations from 2011 until now in Egypt, but we also have to take into consideration the factors affecting this period, such as the number of protests, road obstruction incidents, attacks, explosions, etc. With all of this happening, surely there are violations. Amid clashes between people on the streets and police forces, as hard as it is to tell which party is to blame. It is undeniable that there are victims, killings and tortures in police stations. But again, I cannot hold one party fully responsible because it is a process of wrong actions and reactions. Both sides might be convinced they are right.
How is the performance of Egyptian speakers on the situation of human rights?
As a civil society activist, I cannot discuss human rights’ issues from one perspective only. I must admit that there is a crisis that has to be solved. In Geneva, there was an opposition voice against the abuse of the military regime, but their speech ignored the other side.
My point is if we are aligned on the fact that what happened in 30 June 2013 was a military coup d’état, or that the Protest Law must be abolished, we must ensure the proper means to counter those violations, or else we are just wasting our rights. In other words, the police has more weapons than citizens, so is protesting the best way to reject the Protest Law, or will it lead to more damage than advantages? Looking at the numbers of killings and imprisonments, this strategy has obviously not worked.
Another problem for human rights’ advocates is the political speech they use, which does not serve their cause, using words like “political detainees” and playing more the role of opposition political activists than civil society.
Did their reports get attention in Geneva? On the contrary; Egypt “passed the test” in the Universal Periodic Review. This was thanks to Egyptian diplomacy. Why? Because the UN Human Rights’ Council is not an institution that can implement punishment. They can only produce recommendations. Egypt played it smart by accepting some recommendations, discussing and negotiating, and the result was that its final official report was approved. In comparison, other human rights’ reports were not recognised or influential. Even when they talked about the killing of Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh, the response was that “legal measures have been undertaken by the Prosecutor General”. Thus, getting back a right is a skill and conferring the issue must be properly done.
Do we have a problem with our civil society organisations?
Yes, because some of them undertake a political pressuring role against the government, which makes it impossible to work together towards progress. We also exchange accusations when one of us works with the government. But I tell them, yes, sometimes I have to negotiate with the other party to get results, unlike some who were unable to achieve anything for the citizens, now either live in fear and oppression or outside the country, uselessly.
Isn’t the state oppressing NGOs, especially those working in human rights?
It is a circle. As I told you, it depends on how you approach the state and tackle issues. For instance, the difference between my approach and somebody else’s would be how we discuss the same problem. I will try to make my point, for instance, by stating and proving a torture case. The government will deny it. The other organisations would not even sit with the government, and speak of systematic torture of prisoners, attack the state in their speeches. They reach a dead end and the state does not want them to work anymore, exchanging accusations of foreign conspiracy agendas. On the other hand, the state must amend the NGOs law.
Indeed, how do you view this new draft law regulating NGOs and other independent entities? Some claimed it is going be yet another form of subordination to direct state monitoring, financial and security control?
I don’t agree. I think that one of the positive points of the law is that there will be a defined specialised committee approving or rejecting my projects, giving me a chance to appeal their decision before court. It also stipulates that an NGO is established with prior notification to the Ministry of Solidarity, which eases bureaucratic procedures. As for the part where we have to submit to monitoring, I don’t see a problem as long as I have nothing to hide. I mean, before that NGOs were oppressed and denied authorisations without knowing “who” was behind it, and we knew it was National Security. Now things will be on the table, with clearly stated reasons for the rejection.
How about bringing NGO workers to questioning and trials, as in the infamous case of 2011?
Maat was investigated during that event then released. The state is entitled to know where the money I am receiving from foreign sources is going. But let me tell you something else, it is sometimes us – civil society workers – who work against each other, file reports about each other, because it’s a highly competitive environment and we know each other’s “dirty business.” We pretend we are transparent but we’re not always so. We accuse the state of corruption, but we don’t look at ourselves.
Meanwhile, how would you assess the situation regarding parliamentary elections, the political environment, and the security condition in the country?
Parliamentary elections are late, even when first announced to take place last March, because the Supreme Electoral Commission (SEC) also delayed the announcement of the candidates’ registration. Obviously, the decision-making seemed troubled. Also, the laws organising parliamentary elections were controversial, and were debated for a long time. Many political factions rejected them, and the surprise was when the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) decided the non-constitutionality of the law regarding the division of electoral districts, less than a month before elections were due to start. What happened was a serious mistake. Now we are ‘indefinitely’ waiting for legal amendments.
President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi gave the committee in charge of drafting a new law one month, but here we are without progress yet. And I believe once the law comes out, there will be new appeals against it. We are in front of a very long process where the structure of the upcoming parliament depends on new candidates who will run this time. Political parties are divided between those who claim they were not considered for social dialogue and those who participated, despite that most of their suggestions were not used by the committee.
From January to April, and despite the halt of the elections, we – as a civil society organisation working with the International Observatory Mission – chose to observe political and social, economic and security changes in Egypt, which like parliamentary elections, are all components of the transitional period. We are focused on events related to violence and terrorism and their influence on the electoral process. We observed that over time, armed groups’ increased attacks on civilians and public facilities, especially as we got closer to the Economic Summit held in mid-March. We believe in a strong correlation between our variables, on the hypothesis that if citizens feel unsafe on the streets, they are not likely to put their lives in danger in order to vote for parliament.
In your opinion, why are we unable to get it right concerning parliamentary laws?
All the legislators are constitutional experts and sometimes there is no one right way, but rather various opinions which could be correct as well. However, we are in difficult political times and many factions aspire to political power and are in conflict with each other. Each party is watching the other, catching their mistakes, and that is why any issued law will remain at risk of non-constitutionality. The SCC’s work under pressure results in flawed decisions.
Amid those political conflicts and disagreements among parties, some claimed the state directly interfered with electoral coalitions.
So they claim, but I think that is not the issue here. The real problem we need to address is what do citizens need? The basic citizen’s need is to survive. So security and bread are the most important things, and dignity is on many occasions irrelevant. Start speaking to them about democracy, freedoms and those concepts, they will not show the slightest interest. But tell them you’re a dictator and at the same time give them a satisfying monthly amount of money, they will be happy. These people’s top wishes are to be able to feed their families. They don’t have any higher ambitions.
The public has become a guinea pig for different political regimes, yet did not see changes. Anybody who is going to speak in the name of democracy is not going to be appealing anymore to citizens, who only want to hear about economic growth and social development. Try to compare the limited or conditioned attendance of people to an educational seminar, and on the other hand their arrival hours early to an event which involves the distribution of free or very cheap products, such as school books. If a president wants the people to call his name, he should focus on social and economic rights, rather than political and civil rights.
Do you not think that in order to improve economic and social rights, there needs to be a democratic environment where corruption is not widespread, as well as guarantees that those rights are delivered on one hand, and accountability for failures on the other?
These two files are the main ones the agendas of civil society organisations. Some, and I was among them, claim that political and civil rights are more important than economic and social. We argued that in a democratic nation, transfer of power and a parliament representative of people’s will is the key to success. The other opinion places economic and social rights at the centre. A decent life, a satisfying income, health, education and so on, should pave the way for a democratic environment.
I personally tried to find a balance in between, which is based on a human rights approach, meaning that the two issues should progress in parallel, none of them should be less important than the other.
I believe that the neglect of economic and social rights is a weapon used by those in power to keep people’s ambitions at the lowest possible point. If people become economically and socially happy, they are going to seek more political rights. But when you have to work all day to earn a minimum living, you do not have time to think about powers, torture, freedom and so on. If the regime wants a democratic transition, it will care more about people’s rights to a decent economic and social status. Bear in mind that if any uprisings are on the rise, it is not going to be a revolution, but war.
Maat’s relationship with the state is to share interests, not oppose them to the well-being of the citizen. As so we don’t start by pressuring the government, but looking to help them. If they reject this help, we will turn it into pressure for them to execute.
You have had international experience over time in elections’ observations, especially in the Arab world. What are the differences and similarities with Egypt?
Indeed, I was in Sudan, Tunisia, Jordan, Iraq and Morocco. Each country has its situation. In Jordan, for example, the voters’ database is nearly four million people in comparison to Egypt with over 50 million. But at a time when we still depended on paper, Jordan was much more advanced in technological use during elections, such as digital voters’ registration. Egypt started realising many of the things that kept it behind other countries, such as establishing a permanent independent electoral commissioner in charge of the elections, in Jordan called the Independent High Electoral Commission.