Egyptian parliamentarians lashed out at Europe for questioning our human rights record. Representatives from both houses of parliament took to the floor to denounce Europe for stepping on our toes. That the European Parliament was addressing a real problem didn”t seem to matter. The fact that perhaps we need to come clean didn”t occur to anyone. Only the venting of anger mattered. Europe and America had no right to get on our case, our officials said.
For days our officials denounced foreign interference in Egyptian affairs, asserted our resolve to defend Egyptian sovereignty against any transgression and reminded Europe that it was double-dealing. Worried about rights violations in Egypt? How about Israel”s violations in the occupied territories? Some parliamentarians remarked that Europe was just ignorant of our laws, as well as captive to Zionist opinions.
As denial evolved into hysteria, a Shura Council representative suggested that we deny Europe the right to bid for a petrochemical project worth 300 million euros. That”ll teach “em. Go ahead Europe; make my day. This was the tone that came out of our venerable houses of parliament. The substance of the original accusations was totally ignored. The only practical measure our parliamentarians came up with was to stop sending legislative delegations to Europe for a while.
Egypt, everyone knows, has been rethinking its human rights practices. Parliamentarians could have admitted that our efforts in this regard leave room for improvement. They could have offered to meet European human rights officials and perhaps remind Europe that it is not doing enough for the Palestinians or the Third World. But no, we just flew into a rage, tossing aside substance and courtesy.
Legal experts, many of whom are members of both houses of parliament, seemed to forget one thing: national sovereignty is no longer an excuse for a poor human rights record. Speaking in September 1998, then-UN secretary- general Kofi Annan said the conventional concept of sovereignty was outdated and must be reconsidered. Since then, international intervention took place in Kosovo, Darfur, and the Congo.
In Lebanon, an international court was formed to bring to justice the assassins of Rafik Al-Hariri. Dozens of reports are being prepared by the UN, the EU, the US, and other countries and organisations. These reports cover everything from women to minorities, child labour and religious rights. These are issues that were once the exclusive realm of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Not anymore. Now everyone is monitoring human rights issues, with every country brought under the magnifying glass of world public opinion.
Torture, genocide, rape, abduction, persecution of journalists, and military trials are no longer internal affairs that the world is willing to overlook. In a sense, human rights issues are everybody”s business. So when do we have the right to protest? In one case: when international intervention is carried out for purely political ends but under the cover of humanitarian pretences. This is where the line must be drawn.
Some countries occasionally introduce extraordinary measures to address political violence or terrorism. But unless these measures are kept within a timeframe and handled with extreme care, tyranny may be only a step or two away. This is why our parliamentarians were so wrong. Had they been doing their job in stopping abuses, Europe wouldn”t have had anything to say. We accepted international oversight when we signed agreements of partnership and neighbourliness with Europe. We accepted the international human rights viewpoint when we took aid money from Europe. So the whole virtuous outrage thing was misplaced, and frankly unconvincing.