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Egypt: No freedom without social justice




Despite being one of the nations at the heart of the Arab Spring, uncertainty and political tension continue to bedevil Egypt two years after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. The first transitional government, lead by President Mohamed Morsi, lost popular legitimacy after its polarizing approach caused political gridlock and worsened the country's economic woes. Whether the new administration will satisfy the demands that drove the uprising against Mubarak—embodied in the revolutionary slogan ‘Bread! Freedom! Social Justice!’—is far from clear.

In the context of dwindling foreign currency reserves, the Morsi government prioritized “quick fixes” and short-sighted efforts to reassure international markets over the more meaningful structural changes the country needs to eradicate entrenched patterns of poverty, inequality and exclusion. As explained in an analysis article by CESR Research Consultant Rick Rowden, its eagerness to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a $4.8bn loan risked closing off opportunities to move away from the dysfunctional development model of the past. As one Foreign Policy article explains, this had the effect of shrinking a very complicated discussion about economic reform into the very narrow confines of the IMF's terms.  The lack of transparency in policy making prompted widespread social unrest, which the government responded to by introducing restrictive laws affecting labor organizing and non-governmental organizations.  

In partnership with the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, CESR raised these concerns in May in a joint submission to the pre-sessional working group of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the body tasked with overseeing compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Following the ousting of President Morsi in July, the country continues to witness immense political upheaval and socio-economic instability. A panel charged with amending the country’s Constitution has just begun its work amid continued violent protests. The country’s short-term economic problems appear to have eased a little. After receiving $12 billion from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait, the new finance minister, Ahmed Galal, has said that an IMF loan can be laid aside for now. Whether the administration uses this breathing space to meaningfully rebuild the country’s economic foundations remains to be seen.

In November, Egypt will appear before the full Committee at its 51st session. CESR and ECESR are joining forces again, this time with a broad coalition of Egyptian civil society organizations, to prepare a shadow report for the forthcoming session. If the coalition’s concerns are reflected in the Committee’s subsequent recommendations, this could provide an important advocacy tool for domestic civil society organizations to help move the country away from turmoil, and towards more stable, equitable, and inclusive development.

Efforts to secure economic, social and other human rights as a foundation for Egypt’s ongoing transition may also provide insights into how human rights advocates can confront such challenges more effectively in other contexts of rapid political change. The Arab Spring of 2011 highlighted how interconnected economic and social rights are with civil and political liberties. In Egypt anger over a lack of economic prospects, endemic poverty, stark inequalities and government corruption fuelled the popular outrage just as much as frustration over restrictive emergency laws, state brutality and the absence of democratic freedoms. It is no exaggeration to state that the future progress and stability of the country is contingent on addressing these socio-economic injustices.  Together with our partners in Egypt and beyond, CESR will be doing all in its power to make sure the opportunities offered by this pivotal moment are not lost.