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The Rise of the Human Rights Movement

The official date of the founding of the human rights movement in Egypt is April 1985, when the EOHR was established as a branch of the Arab Organization for Human Rights (AOHR).3 Yet the roots of the rise of the Egyptian movement date back to the 1960s. A wave of rebellion against the iron cage of the Nasserist regime rose in February 1968, nine months after the lightning defeat of the Egyptian and other Arab armies at the hands of Israel. The defeat resulted in the occupation of Sinai in Egypt, the Golan Heights in Syria, and the remains of Palestine—the West Bank and Gaza—and it profoundly shook the soul of the Arab peoples in general. Its impact on the Egyptians was much deeper, however.

The most populous Arab country (currently around sixty million), with

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the most advanced industry, best-known culture, dialect, and art in the Arab world, and the largest and best-equipped army, Egypt was a prime candidate to be the Arab world’s regional power. Indeed, in the mid- 1950s President Nasser (1952-70) had started to introduce a scheme for a greater Arab state unified under his leadership. The greater the hopes, the deeper the shock.

The defeat inflamed national demands for reprisals and the reclamation of the occupied territories, but it also provided an impetus for radical revision of the political, social, and cultural factors that had ushered in the defeat. The amount of scrutiny to which the national disaster was subjected was proportional to its size. Were the sacrifices that had been made justified, even in defeat? Or were the types of sacrifices that had been made—including limits on human rights—part of the defeat? Egyptians had sacrificed their very freedom in the name of the pan-Arab nationalist project and for having confronted Israel. Had it been worth it?

The choice had seemed simple—democracy versus a greater Arab state—and was based on the model of the ‘‘just despot’’ that is deeply rooted in Egyptian/Arab/Islamic politics and history. Democracy, for which Egyptians had struggled for decades until gaining a constitutional monarchy in 1923, was to be sacrificed. To this end, democracy was depicted as synonymous with the “disintegration and division’’ that would facilitate foreign (Western/Israeli) infiltration and thus undermine the establishment of a greater Arab state that would enjoy social justice inspired by the Soviet socialist model.

Egyptians woke up on June 5, 1967, to discover that, in addition to having already sacrificed democracy, they had now lost national independence, land, dignity, and the dream of might and justice. On June 9 and 10, Egyptians took to the streets to protest the defeat and voice their support for the despotic patriarch who was their president. They found it unthinkable that any other ruler could reclaim national soil, let alone that achieving this would demand both another ruler and a different system of government.

Nine months later, Egyptians again took to the streets, this time to protest the light sentences given to a number of military leaders tried as scapegoats for a regime that refused to hold itself accountable. Not only did they consider the sentences too light given the magnitude of the defeat, they were also convinced that the causes of the defeat were as much political as military. Therefore their slogans demanded democracy and freedom of the press in addition to calling for the retrial of the military leaders.

Thus it can be argued that the demonstrations of February 1968

marked the beginning of an arduous, long, and as yet uncompleted

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journey to rediscovering the correlation among national independence, social justice, democracy, and human rights. An appreciation of this correlation first appeared early in the twentieth century, but certain factors—most of which are not of concern here—helped disaggregate these elements. One of the most prominent of these factors was the Arab-Israeli conflict, which started with the usurpation of half of Palestine in 1948 in order to establish Israel with the support of the Western superpowers, and had its most crushing effect on Egypt with the defeat of 1967. This conflict is also the crucial factor that prevented the completion of the journey to return democracy to its previous status in Egyptians’ consciousness. The shock of defeat caused the remolding in the 1980s and 1990s of several political trends that had previously been either coopted or marginalized by Nasser’s regime, and it gave shape to a new political map in Egypt.

The first and primary trend, which has been dominant in Egypt since Nasser’s death in 1970, is a reorganized Nasserism that included (1) restructuring the economy to allow for a gradually increased role for the private sector and foreign capital at the expense of the public sector; (2) restructuring international relations to accommodate Israel (now considered a fact of life) and the West so that confrontation is excluded but the possibility of retaining tense surface relations is not; (3) restructuring the local political landscape to allow restricted pluralism to exist alongside a single, immutable ruling party; and (4) keeping the military off the main stage of political life while retaining its role in determining the course of major strategic issues.

The second trend is another sort of modified Nasserism, one that maintains a leading role for the public sector, does not recognize Israel, and views the Arab-Israeli conflict as the central issue determining all other internal and external policies, including relations with the West. This trend also accords the military a crucial role, not only in Egypt but also in the Arab world as a whole, viewing it as a vanguard of pan-Arab unionism. The role of the military is also seen as decisive in confronting Israel and in holding Arab countries together to face intimidation from the colonialist West. Regarding democracy, this trend espouses much the same kind of restricted pluralism as do the proponents of the first trend, though the political discourse of the second group may give the impression of a greater acceptance of pluralism. The most prominent representative of this perspective is the officially recognized Nasserist opposition party, though several small groups, made up mostly of students, also represent it.

The third trend is leftist with Marxist roots. It differs from the second trend in that it does not advocate that the military should have a leading

role. And, despite its hostility toward the West, some of its sectors are

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willing to accommodate Israel so long as it is within the framework of a new map and a new balance of power. This group is also distinguished by its willingness to accept political pluralism. This trend is represented by several small groups, the largest of which is the officially recognized Nationalist Progressivist Unionist Coalition.

Fourth is the liberal trend. It supports privatization, restriction of the role of the military, a genuinely democratic parliamentary system, and complete openness to the West. However, the stalled peace negotiations and the West’s complicity with Israel force the liberal perspective on this issue to differ little from that of the first three trends. The liberal trend’s progress has also been seriously hampered by the fact that its roots, having been severed in July 1952 when the army took power, are still weak, and it gives priority to the confrontation with the outside world (Israel and the West) at the expense of internal issues. These factors often drive the party representing this trend to swing between an alliance, whether covert or overt, with the Muslim Brothers or the ruling party.

Finally, there is the Islamic trend. It is second only to the first variant of a restructured modified Nasserism in influence and impact on political life. Its main focus is the application of shari'a (Islamic law) and the establishment of an Islamic state, and this determines its strategy on the other key issues. It accepts political pluralism, but only on condition of acceptance of, or at least nonopposition to, the rule of shari'a. It espouses a central role for the military, which is to be Islamicized. The Islamist movement also advocates a capitalist economic system tinted with the hues of Islamic economic principles. Their great animosity toward Israel and the West serves the Islamists well as a tactical tool for mobilization. It argues that in such a polarized atmosphere, and after the devastating failures that afflicted the pan-Arabists, Nasserists, and Marxists, there is no alternative to political Islam as an umbrella for the Arabs (including Christians).

The political organization most representative of the Islamist movement is the Muslim Brotherhood. It is also the most influential and the most engaged in political life. Although there are some well-known Islamist moderates who are less rigid than the Muslim Brotherhood, in the final analysis their efforts benefit the Brotherhood and the Islamist movement as a whole. At the other extreme are the more intransigent armed groups. However, their influence has increasingly receded since the early 1990s, and their remnants support the Islamic political umbrella of the Muslim Brothers.

It was against this backdrop of forces that, in April 1985, a number of Egyptian figures from various political backgrounds founded the Egyptian branch of the AOHR, which three years later became the EOHR.

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Five years after its founding, the EOHR had become a powerful political player in Egypt and soon gave rise to a number of specialized human rights NGOs that infused additional vitality into Egyptian civil society and the political community. The AOHR came out of an Arab regional conference on democracy, and—like later Arab human rights NGOs— its rise, growth, and the shaping of its agenda were closely associated with the Arab-Israeli conflict. After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982 and the first occupation of an Arab capital (Beirut) since the establishment of Israel, some of the Arab world’s most prominent political and intellectual figures convened the AOHR conference. The central concept was the same as that underlying the 1968 demonstrations in Egypt: both the 1967 defeat and the Arab world’s inability to save Lebanon and Beirut in 1982 could be explained by the prevalence of despotic regimes in the Arab world, the suppression of freedom of opinion and expression and the right of participation in decision making, and the trampling of the dignity of the Arab citizen—all of which have led to enervated political societies.

The incentives for establishing the EOHR, however, were more closely linked to the Egyptian political environment, which the Islamists had been playing a vital role in shaping for a decade. In the mid-1970s, the Islamists made a comeback onto the political stage after a long absence behind bars or in voluntary exile to escape persecution by Nasser. President Sadat, who succeeded Nasser in 1970, initiated a process of political reconciliation with the Islamists that grew into an outright alliance because he so feared the leading role the Nasserists and Marxist left were taking in the student movements and, consequently, in society. Sadat gave the Islamists an influential say in designing education curricula and mass media programs (especially for radio and television). Their alliance was further consolidated by an amendment to the constitution stating that the principles of shari'a shall serve as a primary source for legislation. In return, the Islamists supported Sadat’s regime and engaged in daily bloody battles to undermine—and eventually completely marginalize—the Nasserists and Marxists, especially on university campuses. This alliance stood until Sadat was assassinated by the armed wing of the Islamic movement in 1981.

This assassination, and the horrendous acts of violence that accompanied and followed it, paved the way for the human rights conditions that persist today, and thus catalyzed the foundation of the EOHR. The human rights situation in 1985 was characterized by the following:

• The escalation of bloody violence between the security apparatus and

nonstate entities (largely Islamist at this point). The scope of violence

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was eventually extended to include secular intellectuals, Copts, and tourists, as well as hapless bystanders.

  • • The return of torture as an officially condoned practice. In cases of torture of politicians or those suspected of proselytism, the perpetrators were protected from judicial pursuit. Torture was widespread and permitted under Nasser, but under Sadat it stopped being used officially and routinely against politicians and was restricted to isolated cases against criminal suspects in police stations. After Sadat’s assassination, however, it resurfaced as a routine practice.
  • • The escalation of pressure against the freedoms of thought, belief, and opinion. This was a result of the growth of the Islamist movement (in both its armed and unarmed wings) and the state’s gradual but growing submission to pressure in the name of religion.
  • • The declaration of the state of emergency in 1981, which has remained in force ever since. This gave the security forces exceptional powers of detention and the ability to expand a circle of suspects. It also granted impunity for arbitrary practices such as collective punishment of entire neighborhoods or villages, pressuring subjects to turn themselves in by holding members of their families hostage, and circumventing the law—including the Emergency Law itself.
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