Al-Sisi and François Hollande. Photo: Middle East EyeThe case of Giulio Regeni and that of the many Egyptians who have disappeared into thin air and, more recently, the mobilization of the Egyptian union of journalists have brought once again into question the respect of human rights in the Egypt of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Unlike other authoritarian regimes of the past, which masked their repressive policies with a purely cosmetic rhetoric of democracy and fundamental rights, the position of the Egyptian president is less ambiguous. During a press conference on April 17th, held on the occasion of French President François Hollande’s visit to Egypt, al-Sisi declared that the situation of human rights in Egypt can not be evaluated according to European criteria because his country “is a young State that is taking its first steps as a modern democratic nation,” threatened by terrorism and immersed in the “extremely tumultuous” climate of the Middle Eastern region.
In his speech, al-Sisi does not deny the value of human rights, but postpones their full application until times are more politically favorable, thus reclaiming that idea of an “Arab exception” that the revolutions of 2011 had fleetingly denied.
Commenting on the words of President al-Sisi in the daily al-Masry al-Youm, the Egyptian analyst Amr Shobaki recognized that the topics of democracy and human rights are “premature” as long as Egypt fails to solve the many problems that afflict it. However, Shobaki questions why the West accepts this reasoning. Sure, there are substantial economic and geopolitical interests at stake. For example, Shobaki highlights that in a year, France became the biggest weapons supplier of Egypt. But the real reason behind European indifference, the analyst affirms, is that the “western, and in particular European elites, at this point think like the Egyptian president […] and they believe that non-democratic stability is one hundred times better than revolutionary chaos or the kind of democracy that gives birth to terrorists or migrants. For this reason, many westerners would be surprised if we managed to build a stable and advanced democracy.”
In the current situation, it is striking to read what was written by the great Egyptian intellectual Taha Hussein in 1938 in his The Future of Culture in Egypt: “it is our duty,” said Hussein, “to strike this wicked and abominable idea from the hearts of the Egyptians that makes them believe that they were created with a different nature from that of the Europeans and that they were equipped with a different intellect from that of the Europeans.” Taha Hussein, who staunchly advocated that Europe and Egypt belonged to a common Mediterranean civilization, saw European culture as an ideal source of inspiration.
To be sure, we do not need to regret the times of the “civilizing mission” of our continent, especially since when Taha Hussein was writing his words some European countries had already contracted the totalitarian disease and Europe was about to sink into the catastrophe of war.
But there remains the question asked by the Pope on May 6th during the speech for the awarding of the Charlemagne prize: “What has happened to you, the Europe of humanism, the champion of human rights, democracy and freedom? What has happened to you, Europe, the home of poets, philosophers, artists, musicians, and men and women of letters? What has happened to you, Europe, the mother of peoples and nations, the mother of great men and women who upheld, and even sacrificed their lives for, the dignity of their brothers and sisters?”
Perhaps also the Middle East is interested in hearing our response.