“I promise to work for all Egyptians without discrimination,” President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi said in April, during his first speech after securing a second presidential term with 97% of votes against his only rival Moussa Mostafa Moussa.
The president said he upholds the values of citizenship, by which all shall be equal regardless of whether they voted for him in the election or not and despite their differences of opinion, provided those do not harm the state, Al-Sisi stated.
In 2014, a constitution approved by a public referendum vowed to ban discrimination. Article 53 of the constitution stipulates: “All citizens are equal before the law. They are equal in rights, freedoms, and general duties, without discrimination based on religion, belief, sex, origin, race, colour, language, disability, social class, political or geographic affiliation, or any other reason. Discrimination and incitement to hatred are crimes punishable by law.”
According to the constitution, the state shall “ensure equal opportunities for all citizens without discrimination,” in addition to specifically pointing out to gender equality in article 11.
It is the state’s responsibility to “take necessary measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination,” which the constitution said should be done by creating an independent commission for that purpose.
While this remained a delayed project for the regime, demands for the establishment of the commission have recently resurfaced.
A persistent issue
Al-Sisi came to power in 2014, after two waves of popular uprisings which brought down former presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi. On 25 January 2011, people took the streets asking for justice.
Different marginalised groups demanded their rights from the Mubarak regime which “messed up citizenship values, segregated and fuelled tensions between citizens of different race and religion, and embraced widespread discrimination according to social class,” according to the Cairo-based Nazra Organisation for Feminist Studies.
On 20 June 2013, protesters rejected the Islamist rule which discriminated against various groups, at the forefront of which were Copts and women.
Discrimination against women and religious minorities remain the highest reported types of the phenomenon in Egypt, in terms of being subjected to violence by other groups or being incited against in public or in the media.
Members of parliament submitted draft proposals for laws regulating discrimination and organising the work of an anti-discrimination commission.
MP Nadia Henry, member of parliament’s economic committee, was one of the members who submitted a draft law on “equality and banning discrimination among citizens.”
Henry, who is also a member of the Free Egyptians Party and of the 25-30 parliamentary coalition, has been an advocate of rights and freedoms and actively campaigning against discrimination.
“It is a very serious concern,” Henry said in an interview with Daily News Egypt. “The discrimination disease spread in Egypt, perhaps due to years of accumulated injustice and misconceptions.”
Such calls were echoed in a campaign launched months ago focusing on women’s right to work in the judiciary, as women continue to be denied that right in some entities including, the Public Prosecution and State Council authorities, to the contrary of constitutional guarantees.
The campaign grouped civil society women’s rights defenders, MPs such as Henry, and judicial figures, including Mohamed Samir who heads the media department at the Administrative Prosecution, a high-level judicial body.
Samir stressed the importance of fighting discrimination through an established body and clearer definitions of discrimination in the law.
Why is a commission needed?
A copy of Henry’s draft proposal obtained by Daily News Egypt shows that the law aims at establishing legislative rules defining the obligations of all public and private institutions to respect the principles of equality, the prohibition of discrimination among citizens, and the development of appropriate penalties for violating them.
As such, the commission is to have a regulatory role, as an independent body capable of oversight over both public and private institutions.
It further comes with the goal of raising cultural awareness on citizenship principles and equal opportunities as well as developing a system which could effectively counter violations and redress justice for victims.
“Most importantly, people will find an entity to address with these specific issues, in case they faced discrimination of any kind,” Henry said in an interview.
Discrimination in the law
The Egyptian Penal Code does not contain a clear definition of the crime of discrimination, focusing more on punishments for crimes of hatred and incitement to violence against religious groups.
As for the gender dimension, some laws criminalise certain violations against women and children, including rape, sexual assault, and female genital mutilation (FGM). In 2011, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) added an article to the Penal Code punishing discrimination.
The new law stipulated a short prison term and/or fine for any person who commits an act which would result in discrimination against persons or a specific community based on gender, race, language, religion, or faith, in violation of the principal of equal opportunities and social justice. The penalty would be at least three months in prison in addition to a fine between EGP 50,000 and EGP 100,000 if committed by a public official.
Samir said he was not particularly interested in prison sentences, but rather in heavy fines. “People [also] need to be held accountable for discriminatory comments,” he added, giving, as an example, preachers issuing fatwas 9religious edicts) banning Muslims form greeting Christians during their religious holidays.
Henry’s proposed law defines discrimination as the biased or preferential treatment of a person on the basis of his or her real or perceived belonging to any group based on arbitrary criteria such as sex; language; origin; age; religious belief and religious practice; social status; health conditions, especially disability; family responsibility; or withholding workers’ rights, which leads to the total or partial deprivation of one or more segments of citizens of some of the rights provided for in the constitution and international human rights conventions.
The draft law also prevents indirect discrimination practices, which are defined as the existence of a rule or policy that applies to all but has an unfair effect on some persons who share a particular characteristic, such as women and the disabled, for example.
The draft, which Henry hopes will be pushed for by the parliament in the near future, also sets a framework of action against discrimination by delegating the commissioner to file lawsuits on behalf of the victims.
On a different note, Henry has also been working on eliminating gender discrimination through various legislation, including an expected labour law, women’s right to be appointed in any judicial entity, and the personal status law.
International commitments, local challenges
Egypt ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in 1967, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (CMW) in 1993, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2008.
Egypt also ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1981.
Nazra Organisation for Feminist Studies outlined its own version of the law for an anti-discriminatory commission in 2014. It provided examples of similar bodies in other nations.
The Australian Human Rights Commission was founded in 1986 and operates independently from the government. It is concerned with discrimination against people with disabilities and other forms of discrimination such as discrimination based on gender, age, and race. It submits reports to the Parliament of Australia through the public prosecutor.
The Canadian Human Rights Commission was established in 1977 and is responsible for dealing with allegations of discrimination and submitting recommendations to the Ministry of Justice.
South Africa, which has suffered from a history of segregation based on race, included in its constitution of 1996 a number of independent committees aimed at gender equality and the protection of the rights of cultural and religious groups.
Cultural challenges remain the most prominent obstacles facing the combatting of discrimination. Women’s rights advocates reported having the toughest time under the Muslim Brotherhood rule in 2012-2013, which they considered a setback to equality and female empowerment.
Furthermore, in October 2017, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb, head of the leading Islamic institution in Egypt, criticised the convention by pointing out that it is trying to impose gender equality at all levels, which he said contradicts Islamic teachings. Moreover, Khaled Al-Gendi, a well-known preacher, said the convention “threatened” traditional social structures where men are dominant, in a statement to Al-Masry Al-Youm on 18 October 2017.
According to Henry, the “catastrophe” is when a party practices discrimination without being aware of it or without being convinced it is discriminatory. She mentioned the sort of systematic categorisation of tasks according to gender. “Cooking classes in schools are only for female students,” she stated as an example. “At home, boys are taught to be in charge of purchases while girls are asked to handle dishwashing,” she added.
As Ramadan began earlier this month, some TV commercials have faced backlash on social media for promoting gender and social class discrimination, including one for an compound publicly calling on people to choose big brand names in all aspects of their lives, including spouses with “big family names.”
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