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New tools for old problems: closing the accountability gap in Egypt

Allison Corkery, Director of CESR's Rights Claiming and Accountability Program, on the next phase of our ongoing collaboration with Egyptian human rights defenders.

I recently joined a group of leading Egyptian NGOs for a two-day planning retreat in Tunis, which CESR co-organized with the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights in the sidelines of the World Social Forum. Our goal: to flesh out an idea for a new online tool to monitor how government policies are impacting economic, social and cultural rights in Egypt. The motivation for developing such a tool is to ensure that the Egyptian Government is held accountable, domestically, for the commitments it has made before international human rights bodies repeatedly, but rarely implemented.

The meeting, held in the sidelines of the World Social Forum in Tunis
brought together human rights defenders with a broad range of skills
With a young, tech-savvy population, virtual advocacy has offered an important space for social justice in Egypt. This is particularly the case in a context where shrinking civil society space limits opportunities for in-person collaboration. Egyptian NGOs have been keen to explore how to use this space to build momentum about economic, social and cultural rights. With our interest in how technology can advance human rights monitoring, CESR was eager to support the initiative.

Between the 10 of us, we had a broad range of expertise in the room—in research, advocacy, economics, public health, architecture, statistics, and graphic design. Nevertheless, for many of us—myself included—this was a new kind of project.  It was exciting, though somewhat daunting, to be conceptualizing something so innovative from the ground up.

We invited Aspiration, specialists in technology solutions for nonprofits, to facilitate the retreat. Over the course of the two days we came up with a shared vision for the tool—agreeing we wanted something that would open up space for civil society to collaborate more closely, as well as to engage in constructive dialogue with decision-makers.  By translating the recommendations of international human rights bodies into indicators that (a) reflect people’s everyday concerns; and (b) enable evidenced-based advocacy around them, the tool would not only allow for public monitoring of the  government’s performance, it could also prompt greater responsiveness from it.

We also mapped out and prioritized potential users of the tool and brainstormed the ways they might interact with it. Having a better sense of ‘by who’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ the tool would be used allowed more informed deliberation about how we were conceptualizing it. The key question: should it be more like a database? In other words, is a comprehensive, but neutral, source of data on economic, social and cultural rights what is most urgently needed? Or is it more important that the data tell a ‘bigger picture’ story about what’s happening in the country and what progress the government is making to advance economic, social and cultural rights?

Our conclusion was that we would need to tell a story with data, for example by developing a score card, index or dashboard. Specifically, we need to draw together data from fragmented datasets and then present it in a way that is accessible to activists, citizens, and policymakers. This would help uncover hidden patterns of poverty and social exclusion in the country and show trends over time. Doing so has the potential to be a powerful counterbalance that can challenge the dominant narrative that Egypt is bouncing back from the economic woes it has faced in recent years.

In some respects we ended the two days with more questions than answers. Nevertheless, the opportunity to think deeply about the strategic value of an online tool was significant, helping us to narrow down the questions that will have to be answered as we advance in the coming months.

The retreat came days after the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted its report on Egypt’s Universal Periodic Review. CESR delivered an oral statement to the Human Rights Council. In it, we stressed how the “cycle of popular dissatisfaction, social unrest, political repression and rising extremism” vividly illustrated the indivisibility and interdependence of rights in a transitional context.

Nevertheless, economic, social and cultural rights concerns in Egypt were relatively overshadowed by the country’s increasing political repression and crackdown on dissent. Egypt received only 29 recommendations specifically focused on economic, social and cultural rights – out of a total of 300 –during the November 2014 review, despite strong advocacy from Egyptian groups and CESR to draw the Council’s attention to the severe and widespread deprivations of these rights.

At last month’s Council session, the Egyptian Ambassador announced that all of these had been accepted by the government. This is a welcome commitment, of course, but it remains unclear whether it will influence practice on the ground. The government has established a permanent inter-ministerial committee, mandated to study the recommendations and propose policies and measures necessary to implement them. The Committee has reportedly "conducted an extensive consultation” with civil society; although none of our partners had ever heard of it.   

In a country where more than 20 million people are living in poverty, addressing the long standing patterns of socio-economic exclusion—which appear to be becoming even further entrenched—is more urgent than ever. In the absence of official channels for citizen engagement, there is a pressing need for alternative avenues to foster public debate, mobilize for action and strengthen social accountability. Our aspiration is that, by leveraging our collective strengths in the creation of this new tool, we can make a small, but significant contribution to this end. 

Posted by Allison Corkery on May 6th, 2015

A missed opportunity for ESCR: Reflections on Egypt’s appearance before the Universal Periodic Review

CESR's Allison Corkery reflects on the challenges of holding Egypt to account before the UN for its ESCR obligations amidst civil society repression and a politically charged context.

Earlier this month, I attended Egypt’s appearance before the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The review came one year after the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued a series of detailed recommendations to Egypt after it reviewed its periodic state report. Unlike the Committee’s review, the UPR is a peer-review mechanism. For this reason, there was a great deal of interest among Egyptian civil society in engaging with the review. CESR's national partners considered the review a very timely opportunity to secure a public commitment from the government to advance economic, social and cultural rights, by taking action that would implement the recommendations of the Committee. To this end, we worked together and submitted a joint report in advance of the session.

Civil society silenced

There has been a crackdown on voices on dissent in Egypt
Photograph courtesy of Sarah Carr
A number of Egyptian human rights NGOs with whom CESR has been working closely, including the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, had also planned to attend the session in Geneva; in the end, they decided not to, fearing their participation might result in reprisal or possible persecution. In the months leading up to the session, the political climate in Egypt had become increasingly hostile towards human rights activists and advocates working to draw attention to patterns of human rights violations in the country, including of economic, social and cultural rights. The session itself came just five days before the expiration of the government’s ultimatum that NGOs register under the repressive Law 84/2002.

As the only member of the coalition there, the focus of our advocacy in Geneva shifted quite dramatically. While wanting to ensure that relevant actors were made aware of the risks our partners were facing, it was also important that their substantive issues of concern not be overshadowed. We conveyed this message in an open letter to the Members and observers of the Human Rights Council.  The UPR is founded on the principle of participation of all relevant stakeholders, including civil society. Although there were numerous concerns raised about shrinking civil society space more broadly, it was disappointing that the silencing of civil society voices in the UPR process, specifically, was not called out.

Root causes ignored

More fundamentally, the international community missed an opportunity to send a strong message about the need for a transformative socio-economic agenda in Egypt. Of the 125 states that made interventions during the session, around 30 made at least one recommendation related to economic, social and cultural rights. The diversity among the member states picking up these issues—including Bhutan, the Maldives, Argentina, Uzbekistan, and South Africa—was encouraging. That said, these recommendations were generally framed very vaguely, limiting their utility in agenda-setting at the national level. 

The challenges facing Egypt illustrate vividly the indivisibility and interdependence of rights. Since 2011, Egypt has been caught in a deeply troubling spiral of popular dissatisfaction, social unrest and violent repression. The overwhelming majority of interventions focused on this repression.

The political nature of the UPR was certainly a factor influencing the interventions made. There appeared to be a sense from some states that they needed to be “tough” on Egypt. Being tough was interpreted narrowly to mean focusing criticism on civil and political rights, however. They called for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty; the repeal of laws restricting freedom of association; the release of imprisoned journalists and protesters; the protection of rights in counter-terrorism efforts; and action to combat violence against women.

There is no doubt that these are crucial issues that demand urgent action. In the long term, however, ensuring there are checks on the government’s power requires tackling the root causes of social unrest and these root causes were all but ignored in the session.  The word ‘poverty’ was only used once, by Bhutan, in the entire session! That’s astounding when over 20 million people in Egypt live in poverty and their rights have been all but ignored by the government. 

The UPR: 'bigger picture' questions

Egypt’s review also raises broader questions around the capacity of the UPR to effectively address economic, social and cultural rights. In preparing our advocacy materials, we reviewed the recommendations from previous sessions and the disparity between civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights—both in terms of the quantity and quality of recommendations made—was pronounced. That gap was certainly apparent in the recommendations made to Egypt.

To narrow this gap as the UPR continues into subsequent cycles, it’s important to explore the reasons for it. For example, one factor may be that the UPR asks a lot from civil society, particularly in terms of lobbying member states to champion particular issues in the review.

Egyptian civil society groups worked energetically to ensure that economic, social and cultural rights featured prominently in the UPR—with CESR providing legal, policy and advocacy support. This included collaborating on a submission, endorsed by 130 organizations, which was referenced extensively in the stakeholders’ report prepared by OHCHR. We also produced a series of 11 short briefing papers for member states. Focusing on specific rights and cross-cutting issues, these briefing papers outlined key concerns; provided supporting evidence for them, including with quantitative data where possible; and suggested recommendations. 

It’s a significant investment of time and energy in finding out which member states are interested in which issues, tailoring materials for them, contacting them etc. The increasing hostility towards civil society in Egypt in the past year severely curtailed its ability to engage in this kind of activity. We were able to provide additional support to counterbalance that to a degree, but not to the extent needed. 

Another factor might be the individualized way that member states prepare their interventions. There were 125 member states on the speakers’ list for Egypt’s review, which meant each intervention was limited to one minute! It also meant that a handful of issues were raised over and overagain. One of the strengths of the UPR is the breadth of issues it can potentially address. To live up to this potential, however, the human rights record of the state under review needs to be interrogated in a more coordinated and systematic way. 

Looking ahead

Despite the low priority given to economic, social and cultural rights in the interventions, the Egyptian delegation itself spoke about economic, social and cultural rights in very strong terms, describing them as a “cornerstone” in the achievement of the goals of the Revolution, as well as a “priority concern that requires more resources”. On the one hand, this sounds like empty rhetoric in light of the reality on the ground. On the other hand, however, the fact that the government felt the need to make such overtures is testament to the exceptional advocacy Egyptian NGOs have been pursuing at the national level. Of course, sustained pressure to act on these commitments is needed if they are to be meaningful. To that end, we are exploring ways to support Egyptian NGOs in translating the recommendations into measurable targets whose progress can be tracked publically, in order to foster interest in, and accountability for, the implementation of UPR recommendations by national actors.

Allison Corkery is Director of CESR's Rights Claiming and Accountability Program

Posted by Allison Corkery on November 21st, 2014

Egypt: Economic and Social Disparities Underlie Calls for Change

Tens of thousands of people have gathered today in central Cairo and other Egyptian cities for what they are calling the "day of departure" of President Hosni Mubarak.

Ten days after protests began in Egypt, and exactly three weeks after former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stepped down in Tunisia, one of the most remarkable regional uprisings in recent history continues to blow change through the Arab world.

These are unprecedented protests by citizens reclaiming their rights not only to political freedoms but, critically, to a decent standard of living. The tide of dissent that began in Tunisia has swept to Algeria and Yemen, among other countries, and governments have been forced to react to demands for immediate change.

While the media has understandably focused on the violence and authoritarian intransigence with which the protests have been met, the underlying causes at the heart of these revolutions have received less attention.

Protesters are clearly demanding fundamental regime changes--for rule of law, for greater freedom of expression and for the overhaul of the dominant authoritarianism that has stunted democratic governance for decades. But a tipping point that fueled the uprisings, called "days of rage" by organizers, stems from longstanding frustrations about living a decent life in dignity.

Dissatisfaction about high unemployment, lack of economic prospects, rising food prices, endemic poverty and inadequate living conditions that citizens in these countries have faced has boiled over. Curbing of people's political expression and high-level corruption by avaricious leaders have further compounded this deep frustration. The Brookings Institution recently noted that "the social and economic underpinnings of the uprising are among the important similarities between Tunisia and these other countries."

Access to basic economic and social rights is a central part of the back story: In December 2010, the FAO's food price index spiked to a record level, surpassing even that of 2008 which prompted global riots. The agency estimated that prices could increase further, and worried that this surge could instigate a new wave of riots, particularly in the Middle East. This alarming all-time high prompted the FAO's Chief Economist Abdolreza Abbassian to warn that "we are entering dangerous territory."

Underlying the past weeks' events are inequality--and possible violations of people's economic and social rights--in the rights to food, work, housing and education, among others. Further, two significant areas of discrimination deserve a closer look: disparities between youth and adults, and between men and women, especially in health, education, labor and an adequate standard of living. These disparities are significant, as CESR has previously reported.

A successful outcome of Egypt's current political reform hinges on addressing these fundamental inequities.

An August 2010 ILO report on global youth unemployment pessimistically predicted that in 2010-2011, "only in the Middle East and North Africa" are youth unemployment rates expected to increase in 2011. In a January 2011 report on overall unemployment trends the agency noted that the region continues to have the highest rate of unemployment in the world, with the youth unemployment rate nearly four times that of older adults. Youth are characterized as between the ages of 15-29 years of age, they represent the largest demographic group in the Arab region that is growing at an unprecedented rate, according to a UN report.

In March 2010, the Middle East Youth Initiative pointed out that while unemployment in Egypt had been declining, this was paradoxically associated with a deterioration of job quality rather than major improvements in labor market conditions. Youth who are left with either precarious or informal employment are often not included in labor statistics. The UNDP's 2010 Human Development Report on Egypt warned that the "the outcome of youth's transition to adulthood, if badly managed, becomes highly problematic."

The long-term consequences of sustained youth marginalization has been echoed repeatedly for years by several international organizations. "Given the high percentage of youth among Arab populations, and their intense yearning for jobs, opportunities, and freedom the risks of neglecting youth are simply too high to afford," UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro said recently.

It is this "generation-in-waiting," tired of social exclusion, who believe that change is now possible. They are leaders in bringing about what looks to be a new era for the Middle East--one in which governments will have to meet citizens' social, economic and political aspirations.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in Egypt, the most populous Arab country. These past 10 days the country has witnessed its first major uprising since the 1977 Egyptian Bread Riots.

In a January 25 statement by the Egyptian Land Center for Human Rights in response to the growing protests, the organization noted, "Perhaps this message will make the authorities wake up from their slumber, and force them to apply alternative policies... and ensure a dignified life for the Egyptians. All of this could be achieved by providing opportunities for decent work, decent housing, appropriate health care and education for all citizens, who are raged and angry at the bad conditions and current policies."

Just yesterday, the Director-General of the UN International Labour Organization (ILO), Juan Somavia, called on the leaders of Egypt to "listen attentively and sincerely to the voices of the people [and] first of all, to provide decent jobs and good opportunities to maintain a decent living."

"The failure to address this situation effectively, with all of its consequences for poverty and unbalanced development, together with limitations on basic freedoms, has triggered this historic outpouring of popular demands," Mr. Somavia said in a statement.

The causes of the recent street protests reverberate with civil society organizations' work toward rights-based economic and social reform. The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, an NGO whose offices were reportedly raided by police and some of whose employees were beaten by thugs yesterday, pointed out last month that the costs of the global economic crisis have been paid by the poor. An increasing cost of living, stagnant wages and lack of employment opportunities was underscored by the fact that the only beneficiaries of Egypt's economic policies are those close to decision-makers, the organization said.

Similar concerns were raised earlier last year by CESR, along with several other local and regional NGOs, when Egypt appeared before the 7th Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council in February 2010. A joint NGO statement on Egypt's compliance with its economic and social rights obligations noted some disquieting findings, including that:

  • Public spending on health, education and social security declined between 2003-2007, in stark contrast to the rise in spending on defense and national security;
  • Egypt's anti-poverty policies have failed to make progress, and the number of people living on less than $2 per day in Egypt has risen in the past 20 years;
  • Members of the informal sector have suffered a deterioration of their real earnings over time; and
  • Only 16 percent of women in Egypt work, women's salaries are far lower than men's for comparable work, and women are far more likely to be unemployed. The gender wage gap is the widest of all the lower-middle-income MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries.

The disproportionate impact of economic and social deprivation on women and girls was also highlighted in CESR's fact sheet on Egypt, produced in collaboration with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the findings of which were echoed by the UN Committee monitoring discrimination against women.

The street protests demonstrate how interrelated social and economic rights are to political freedoms. A continued state of emergency has been in place in Egypt since 1981. This highly restrictive political environment has hampered democratic processes, which are vital for sustainable social and economic development and progress on all human rights.

Peaceful transition in Egypt, as well as in other Arab countries experiencing similar changes, must not only open up space for political participation. New leaders and governments must listen to their people's demands for economic and social rights, and for structural reforms to eradicate enduring and entrenched patterns of poverty, inequality, and exclusion. Key members of the international community also must take responsibility in enabling Arab states to meet the full range of their human rights obligations during and beyond this transition period.

Related: CESR condemns assault, coercion and threats of human rights workers and journalists in Egypt >>

Posted by Victoria Wisniewski, Ignacio Saiz and Kevin Donegan on February 4th, 2011