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Across the board
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 11 - 02 - 2010

Gamal Essam El-Din reviews this week's changes at the National Council for Human Rights
A major shake-up of the board of the government-affiliated National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) was approved by the Shura Council on Monday. The changes were recommended by the Shura Council's General Committee, which includes Shura Council Chairman and National Democratic Party Secretary-General Safwat El-Sherif, the chairmen of Shura Council committees, representatives of opposition parties, public figures and the Minister of State for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Moufid Shehab.
The General Committee met "on Monday to review the performance of NCHR's board the term of which expired on 3 January", according to a press statement, and recommended changes to the board.
New members, joining the board for a three-year term, include former chairman of the Supreme Judicial Council of Egypt and of the Court of Cassation Moqbel Shaker, who replaces Ahmed Kamal Abul-Magd, the NCHR's vice-president since it was established in 2003. He is joined by chairman of the Press Syndicate Makram Mohamed Ahmed, chairman of the Lawyers' Syndicate Hamdi Khalifa, head of the Shura Council's Constitutional Affairs Committee and former prosecutor- general Ragaa El-Arabi and former socialist prosecutor-general Gaber Rihan. The list also includes two appointed Coptic deputies of the People's Assembly, Ibtessam Habib and Iskandar Ghattas, Anwar Raslan, an appointee to Shura Council and professor at Cairo University's Faculty of Law and former chairman of the Court of Cassation Adel Abdel-Baqi.
They replace Sameh Ashour, former chairman of the Lawyers' Syndicate, Galal Aref, former chairman of the Press Syndicate, Gamal Shuman, former socialist prosecutor- general, Wafdist lawyer Fahmi Nashed, professors of law Suleiman Abdel-Moneim, (Alexandria University) and Salah Fawzi (Cairo University), former ambassador Mohamed Galal and Samia Abdel-Ghani, vice- president of the Administrative Prosecution Authority.
The new NCHR board now has 27 members, including its president, former UN Secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
Commentators see the dismissal of Abul- Magd as the most controversial of the changes. An enlightened Islamic scholar and long- time staunch advocate of human rights in Egypt and the Arab world, Abul-Magd has been replaced by Shaker, a judge known to be trusted by the regime.
Sources within the Shura Council's General Committee say Abul-Magd refused to remain a member of the NCHR's board after losing his position as vice-president.
"We told him that his efforts in strengthening the role of the NCHR were highly appreciated and that he should remain as a board member but he rejected the offer," said one source.
Abul-Magd told reporters he had been given no advance notice of the Shura Council's decision. "I read about it in the newspapers. Nobody contacted me in advance to tell me I was being replaced as NCHR vice-president."
Political observers believe Abul-Magd has been replaced because of his continued criticism of government policies on human rights and democratisation.
Hafez Abu Seada, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) and a member of the NCHR, argues that Abul-Magd's dismissal came about as a result of his criticisms of the renewal of the emergency law.
"He had also called for the amendment of Article 77 of the constitution to limit presidential terms to two and opposed the inheritance of power."
Abul-Magd was in charge of preparing the NCHR's annual reports on human rights in Egypt, the most recent of which, issued in April 2009, was very critical of the ministries of interior and justice.
"The report is due to be discussed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council at the end of this month, along with three independent reports on Egypt's human rights record," points out Abu Seada.
Other political analysts argue that Abul- Magd's meeting with a US Congressional delegation to discuss religious freedoms in Egypt was the last straw as far as the authorities were concerned.
Mohamed Fayek, chairman of the Arab Organisation for Human Rights, believes "the departure of Abul-Magd will be a big loss to the NCHR."
"He is a man of conscience and was a powerful advocate of human rights. He is a politician, an enlightened Islamic scholar, a public law professor and a distinguished constitutional advisor. He was the sort of man who could never tailor his convictions to suit the regime," said Fayek.
Abul-Magd, who served as minister of youth and minister of information in the early 1970s, saw it as "part of my national and moral duty to serve my country in terms of improving its record on human rights".
Independent observers have noted that independent human rights activists have lost out on the board to government- affiliated professors of law and figures who are sympathetic to the regime. Gamal Zahran, independent MP and professor of economics and political science at Suez Canal University, claims that Shaker's appointment "is a reward for opposing the group of reformist judges that alerted the public to rigging of the parliamentary elections".
"Shaker," predicts Zahran, "will stamp the last nail in the NCHR's coffin."
Though 13 judges and professors of law are now members of NCHR's board, most of them, points out Abu-Seada, belong to the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).
The appointment of Shaker and other new members of the NCHR's board was, insists El-Sherif, "the result of complete impartiality and respect for the law and for the NCHR's own regulations".
"New members were selected to perform their roles independent of the government and in conformity with Egypt's international human rights obligations."


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