In a press conference held by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and French President Emmanuel Macron at the Egyptian Federal Palace in Cairo last Monday there was a conflict over the concept of human rights in Egypt and in France.
Perhaps this is the first time since 2013 that a foreign president or a foreign official has spoken so clearly about human rights.
The two presidents agreed on many basic issues of bilateral cooperation in most areas including the war on terror and Libyan. But it was clear that there was a strong controversy in the area of human rights.
Former French president Francois Hollande has visited Egypt more than once, but the issue has never been raised publicly; perhaps it was behind closed doors.
Macron is very different. He acts as an international leader. This was clear in his calls for the establishment of a European army, in his public disagreements with Donald Trump, and finally in his clash with the Italian government, especially Deputy Prime Minister Mateo Salveni. Thus, we need to understand that he did not intend to provoke us per se; we should’ve paid attention to this.
And this brings us to the following question: Was it fine for us to get into this debate, or would it have been better to let Macron say what he had to say and leave it at that?
There is no definite answer. Some people believe Egypt has won since it got to present its view in detail at a conference covered by influential international media, where Egypt stressed that social and economic rights are ahead of other rights, mainly political rights. Therefore, Egypt will no longer have to reexplain its point of view every time the subject arises.
Others believe the exact opposite. They think that the regime has lost a lot by giving Macron a golden opportunity to give us a lecture on human rights while at our presidential palace. More importantly, those who didn’t even know we have a problem with this issue now know that and more, which doubles our loss, because it’ll cause the entire world to focus on a weak spot we have.
I think there is a misunderstanding that some of us have about the concept of human rights in the West. There it is part of the culture of governance in society as a whole and it is nothing like what happens in the third world. There are light years separating us from them in this matter. In the West, they have a very strong political life, parties and civil society organisations. They have strong economic and social forces that establish social balance and protect their democratic model from any deviations.
I think that Mohammed Al-Baz’s question about “whether Macron has changed his mind or his view on the issue” is reasonable, but what happened at the rest of the conference was that we gave Macron the microphone to preach to us about human rights.
The other important point is: who should we be addressing and who should we try to convince? Do we focus on Egypt internally or rather the outside world? If we answer this question carefully, we might overcome a lot of problems.
So, if we’re addressing the Egyptian audience, then we will need to be using specific tools. A large part of the Egyptian public opinion used to be interested in economic and social rights, and they were ready to exchange them for political rights, but what if they do not get the political rights?
But if we’re talking to the outside world, then things are not going to be that easy. Western countries have strong convictions about the concept of human rights, which are almost a given over there. US President Donald Trump, for example, who some see as fascist and racist, every day accepts unprecedented criticism of his character and policies, yet he does not arrest opponents. He did kick a CNN correspondent out, but had to let him back in due to a court decision. He knows the rules of the game of democracy, even though he does not like them.
The context and the circumstances we have are different than the ones in the West of course. What I’m trying to say is that what some of us here believe in terms of human rights cannot possibly convince Macron or any European official or even a regular citizen, including those who hate Islam.
Personally, I believe that the magnitude of losses was greater than any gains in the debate on human rights that took place. If this is true, then I do hope that we can reconsider the way we address ourselves and address the world outside.
I do not have a magic answer, but we must ask ourselves frankly: What is the best way to act on this file?
I am not talking about emotions, feelings or wishes, but about reality. The first fundamental question is: Do we need the West so much as to allow them to give us lectures on human rights? A question we’ll try to answer later, God willing.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Shorouk News on 30 January 2019
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.