Egypt’s National Dialogue commenced its proceedings last week by discussing some of the issues to be dealt with by the five committees on its political axis. In the topic addressed by the Committee on Public Freedoms and Human Rights, the focus was on eliminating all forms of discrimination.
The major question posed to the participants was how discrimination in society can be eliminated. The aim was to generate specific proposals that could be raised with the authorities, leading to a transition from diagnosing the phenomenon to treating it.
Discrimination is the deprivation of an individual or a group of equal treatment due to religious, gender, linguistic, racial, class, geographic, or political reasons, or due to physical disabilities. Such discrimination erodes the foundations of society, gives rise to the causes of conflict, and weakens not only the sense of citizenship but also the sense of humanity itself.
In response to the question of how discrimination can be eliminated, the participants on the committee suggested action on two fundamental levels. The first is the activation or amendment of the legislative texts required to eliminate discrimination, and the second is close attention to the level of the cultural environment that supports the implementation of these texts. Despite some debate about which level to start with, the general trend of the discussion was that both directions must be pursued together.
Starting with legislation, the participants agreed on the necessity of implementing Article 53 of the 2014 Constitution, which establishes a commission to combat all forms of discrimination. However, there were different views on whether this commission should have its own separate law governing it or whether the provision establishing the commission should be part of a comprehensive equality law that defines all forms of discrimination and links violations to clear penalties.
Both proposals have their merits, as those calling for a law specific to the commission might rely on the existence of numerous ready-made drafts, including the one referred by the House of Representatives, the lower house of Egypt’s Parliament, to the Constitutional and Legislative Committee and the Committee on Human Rights for study and consultation in February 2023 before its being presented to a general session for voting.
It should be noted that the technical secretariat of the National Dialogue received at least ten different drafts after the session submitted by entities including the Egyptian Feminist Union, General Union of Egyptian Women, Coordination of Parties, Youth and Politicians, Al-Adl (Justice) Party, Tagamoa (Unionist) Party, Homat Al-Watan (Homeland Defenders) Party, and Al-Shaab Al-Gumhuri (Republican people’s) Party, in addition to various individual proposals.
These drafts shared an emphasis on ensuring the independence of the commission from the executive and on granting it full powers to monitor manifestations of discrimination, investigate complaints, and show solidarity with victims. The drafts also stressed the need for an adequate budget. However, they differed on whether the commission should be established within the National Council for Human Rights or whether it should be established in addition to it, considering that both could coexist in practical terms.
On the other hand, those advocating for a comprehensive equality law that would include a section on the commission argued that the commission was just one mechanism among many for achieving equality. Thus, its natural place would be within a broader law on equality.
In this regard, it is worth mentioning a draft law previously submitted by the National Council for Human Rights in 2008 to ensure equal opportunities and prohibit discrimination that included a provision on a committee or commission to monitor the implementation of the law.
The Evangelical Coptic Organisation for Social Services also prepared a draft law to criminalise hate speech, which was further developed by the National Council for Human Rights. Additionally, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights proposed a comprehensive equality law, considering that the commission should have the authority to issue binding judgements without compromising the rights of victims of discrimination on appeal.
In addition to focusing on the issue of the commission, there was also an emphasis in the committee’s discussions on monitoring discrimination in certain existing laws and the non-implementation of certain legal provisions.
Regarding discrimination based on religion, there was a demand to amend Law 80 of 2016, which deals with the construction and renovation of churches and their annexes, as it does not set out single standards for building places of worship and limits the practice of religious rituals to churches, despite the constitution guaranteeing the freedom to practise such rituals. Additionally, the term “Christian sect” used within the law might be thought to carry negative connotations.
Concerning discrimination based on disability, the committee raised criticisms regarding the failure to establish the board of the National Council for Persons with Disabilities in accordance with Law 11 of 2019 and the non-formation of a dedicated fund for them, as stipulated by Law 200 of 2020 and its subsequent amendment in 2022.
When discussing the cultural environment that nurtures anti-discrimination legislation, the committee members highlighted that some individuals unknowingly engage in discriminatory behaviour in their daily lives. It is crucial to raise awareness about the value of equality and to reject discrimination through all educational institutions, starting from families and extending to schools, religious institutions, and even political parties and the media, they said.
Furthermore, it is necessary to train individuals within these institutions, as well as those working in law-enforcement agencies, to combat discrimination. One suggestion called for a strategy to combat discrimination similar to the National Strategy for Human Rights, which would involve the collaboration of all institutions to promote the value of equality, rather than each operating in isolated silos.
Regarding the topic of combating discrimination, it can be confidently said that the overall sentiment in the room was supportive of rejecting discrimination. However, it should also be acknowledged that some individuals had concerns to the effect that rejecting discrimination could lead to areas that do not align with the societal values of Egypt and that criminalising hate speech could lead to restricting freedom of expression, potentially resulting in a form of positive discrimination that might lead to discrimination against others.
The writer is a professor of political science at Cairo University and the head of the National Dialogue’s Subcommittee on Human Rights.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly