Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 2012, Pages 40, 74

Cairo Communiqué

As Egypt's New President Takes Office, Human Rights Groups Want Their Say

By Joseph Mayton

A woman demonstrates with hundreds of other Egyptians in front of the presidential palace in Cairo July 1 to demand the release of political prisoners arrested by the military since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak 18 months earlier. (Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/GettyImages)

Egyptian activists were angered when the country's new president, Mohamed Morsi, failed to meet with a number of demonstrators who had camped in front of the Presidential Palace in early July. They had hoped to express their goals for Egypt's future under his leadership.

Since Morsi assumed power on June 30, Egypt has been in a tug of war between the left and the right over which direction their new government should take. Despite their differences, however, they do agree on one thing: access to the president. Activists have marched on the palace twice since Morsi took office, demanding that he follow through with his promise to free the some 12,000 political prisoners detained by the military junta over the past 17 months.

Morsi himself has shown a willingness to meet with activists, leaders and families of those killed during the 18 days of protests in January and February of last year that resulted in the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak and paved the way for Morsi to become the country's first-ever democratically elected leader.

For a man who has spoken of being a "humble servant" to the nation, the idea that his door is always open to grievances and ideas already has caused him difficulty. With activists pressing for meetings and insisting he respond to their every demand, it has not been easy for Morsi to focus on the day-to-day efforts necessary to bridge the growing frustration and schisms in the country.

According to Morsi spokesman Yasser Ali, this openness is part of the new president's persona. "We want people to feel like he is different than Mubarak and that this is a new era where the president listens to the people," Ali explained, "but we do have to maintain a level of separation so the president can do his work."

Morsi's agenda is as long as the list of failures left behind by his predecessor and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which acted as a caretaker government during the interim transitional period until Morsi took office. Among the country's most pressing needs are economic stability, jobs, parliamentary elections, and what is arguably the most urgent issue for Egyptian activists and rights groups: human rights.

Given the government's decades-long neglect of promoting, much less upholding, human rights, Morsi faces an arduous task. It is not one he will have to tackle alone, however. Days after he took office, a group of Egyptian rights organizations launched a campaign called "Our Rights in 100 Days" to monitor, provide recommendations to and establish accountability for the new president as he begins to form a government.

At a July 4 press conference, 17 Egyptian human rights NGOs released a 7-page memo sent to President Morsi two days earlier. The memo identified the most important steps necessary to improve Egypt's human rights situation—measures which the signatories believed were missing from the president's early strategies and statements.

According to the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), the memo "began with the observation that the 100-day plan which was promised by the president does not sufficiently address the critical nature of the challenges currently facing Egypt, especially in the realm of human rights. Indeed, the plan neglects human rights issues and fails to present practical solutions to the grave crises which have been created by the transitional period under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), with the participation of the now-dissolved People's Assembly."

The groups called on Morsi to issue a series of decrees that would guarantee the rights of Egyptian citizens, and also demanded that he work to release all political prisoners jailed by the military junta since the uprising ended on Feb. 11, 2011.

Activist and human rights defender Salma Ramadan described the goal of the campaign as being to "create a real new Egypt where no matter who is in power, conservative or liberal, we all have the same rights and personal freedoms."

The revolution is close to Ramadan's heart. Along with thousands of others, the liberal university student and local NGO researcher was protesting on the streets of Cairo in January and February 2011—and frequently during the past nine months as well, calling for the removal of the military council from power. Although she is not terribly excited about a Muslim Brotherhood president, she remains optimistic.

"Morsi has said all the right things thus far," she said. "He is our president, for all Egyptians. This is what he said, so if we can make sure that he listens to us and supports human rights, I don't think the country is in danger."

Ramadan considers the "Our Rights in 100 Days" campaign the most important initiative since the fall of the Mubarak regime. Others agree, and while the campaign has received little attention, its call for transparency and oversight—often absent from Egypt's political scene over the past six decades—is much welcomed by Egyptians across the political spectrum. 

Joseph Mayton is a free-lance journalist based in Cairo, where he administers the Web site <http://bikyamasr.com>.

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