By H.A. Hellyer
17 June 2015
Analysts whose scope of interest includes Egypt regularly get asked questions such as: “How stable is Egypt? Is it sustainable?” Most have been reduced to glib replies such as “unsustainably stable.” Glib, facile and superficial, but it serves the purpose. No one seems to want to ask the real question: “What can we do to make Egypt more stable?” The answers involve sacrifices, which few seem to want to envisage.
Human rights organizations and civil rights institutions inside and outside Egypt have been sounding the alarm and are more concerned than ever, not just regarding state abuses of fundamental rights, but also their ability to accurately and openly report them.
Media inside and outside Egypt have been reporting dozens of cases of unexplained ‘disappearances’ of activists who are critical of the current government and state institutions. Even the quasi-governmental National Council of Human Rights has representatives such as Nasser Amin openly attacking what it sees as state policy in this regard.
Independent groups are more blatant. A member of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression said: “The Ministry of Interior is taking its vengeance against the people who made the 25 January Revolution.”
The disappearances are only the latest criticism against the state by the civil rights sector, which has catalogued judicial inconsistencies in mass trials, excessive use of force by security agencies, and failure to enact processes to ensure accountability of state officials responsible for these flaws.
However, that cataloguing may become even more problematic. It has been clear over the past few years, since the eruption of the Jan. 25 uprising, that there is a war over representing facts on the ground. Opposing political forces have been keen to engage in spin to support their own narrative.
Civil Rights Groups
The work of certain civil rights groups - those that have refused to be drawn into this political partisanship - in logging state abuses regardless of who is in power has been invaluable. However, their work is not to be taken for granted.
One of the Arab world’s most pre-eminent human rights institutions is the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, which has worked with institutions across the region, including intergovernmental bodies such as the Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Institute. Its efforts in keeping track of state excesses for more than 20 years have been lauded around the world.
However, last year its director Bahey Eldin Hassan was advised to leave Egypt after receiving death threats, and the bulk of its operations were transferred to Tunisia. Hassan spoke at the European Parliament recently on the state of human rights in Egypt. Like most, if not all human rights organizations, he was rather critical and unflattering.
Such a presentation at the European Parliament ought to have been viewed as an opportunity for a confident Egyptian state intent on protecting the rights envisaged in the constitution. Instead, the offices of the Institute were promptly visited by a committee delegated by the Egyptian judiciary to ‘look into its activities.’
Understandably, around two-dozen rights organizations in the country viewed this as retaliation for the critical presentation in Brussels. If they are right, then a key institution that many inside and outside Egypt rely on to see an impartial and non-partisan view of civil liberties is in jeopardy. That would be a tragedy.
Is the country headed toward a ‘revolutionary wave’ due to state policies, as some on the left say? Some kind of unrest remains possible - even plausible - but that is somewhat different than what those on the left might perceive.
A direct reaction to these kinds of civil-rights infringements is unlikely. After years of turmoil, the appetite for wide-scale political mobilization has waned tremendously. There are those who continue to agitate for the return of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, but that cause has little hope of attracting a critical mass of the population.
The argument one hears in many quarters, particularly in Western capitals, is relatively simple: “We may be unimpressed with the Egyptian state’s actions in these areas, but the state is stable, prospects of a political alternative are minimal, and so we would be best placed to deal with what is on offer.”
While the Egyptian state is counting on a Fauxian pact with its population, to exchange infringements on personal rights for a security establishment’s interpretation of ‘stability,’ many within the international community seem to be doing something quite similar.
Against the backdrop of groups in the region such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) , as well as turmoil in countries such as Libya and Syria after their own uprisings failed to propel them immediately onto a better course, that is all quite understandable.
However, it is also incredibly striking in its short-sightedness. Groups such as ISIS were not created by the uprisings, nor by the repression of certain regimes - that leaves out the very real issue of radical ideology that is at the core of these movements. However, if the seed of these groups is ideological in essence, the fertility of the soil in which widespread germination and growth can take place is more often than not political and social.
ISIS would probably exist in some shape or form without those political and social issues that plague Syria and Iraq. However, it would be far more controllable and far less widespread, because those societies would be far more resilient and their citizens far more immune.
No one knows if the structural deficiencies of the Egyptian political bargain will hold for the long term, particularly given the youth bulges that will hit the demographic reality of the country, the sluggishness of the economy, and the incipient polarization that exists. An upheaval of some kind cannot be ruled out. If it happens, however, it is almost certain to be quite ugly, and it could happen regardless of what the authorities do at this point.
If it does not happen, the specter of deeper radicalization nevertheless remains. Considering the results of the ‘bargain’ of the latter half of the 20th century between the Arab world and the West, and between most Arab governments and their peoples, one would have thought it was time for a radical rethink of how to approach the region.
Alas, it seems few are willing to make those tough choices. Failure to do so is likely to develop far more difficult scenarios down the road. At times like these we need more, not fewer, groups such as the Cairo Institute, if only to record for history how we got things so abysmally wrong.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.