The Politics of Human Rights in Egypt and Jordan

By Chase, Anthony | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 2015 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Human Rights in Egypt and Jordan


Chase, Anthony, The Middle East Journal


Bosmat Yefet's The Politics of Human Rights in Egypt and Jordan is poised astride two defining shifts in the contemporary Arab world: the Arab uprisings of 2010-2013 that shook both the foundations of the Arab political order and the assumptions of many academic experts who assured us of the stability of that order; and the countermovements that have usurped, withstood, or overthrown these uprisings. Key actors in these countermovements have included Islamists supplanting movements for multiethnic pluralism; nationalist state elites reasserting authoritarian power despite popular repudiations; and resilient monarchies that have also funded counterrevolutionary pushbacks against the democratic openings that briefly emerged in the wake of the Arab uprisings.

Given these countermovements' success, it could be assumed that 2010-13 was nothing more than a blip; a brief disruption in the preeminence of Islamists, military regimes, and monarchies. The book under review, however, has the great virtue of allowing the reader to move past such a static vision and into how human rights discourse has been repressed, certainly, and yet also been a vital impulse in Arab politics. In this regard, The Politics of Human Rights shows the insights that can be gleaned from working at the interstices of international relations and comparative politics. On the one hand, in a broad international relations frame, Yefet shows the penetration of the global language of human rights into local discourses in the Arab world. On the other hand, in a specific comparative politics mode, she demonstrates the complexities of that penetration in Egypt and Jordan. This gives Yefet the opportunity to explore cases that are revealing both in terms of each country but, as well, indicative of larger trends in the region. The questions raised include: Why did human rights-inflected uprisings emerge in countries across the region, but have particular success only in some countries (such as Egypt) but not others (such as Jordan)? And what do the resilience of the Jordanian monarchy and the resurgence of Egypt's so-called deep state indicate about the reasons that such human rights inflections met sharp limits in being translated from rhetoric into reality?

The upsurge of popular demands for more representative governance that swept Egypt and other parts of the Arab world were prefigured by decades of under the radar activism. Yefet provides the backdrop to this by showing how human rights were identified as a powerful language by sectors in the Egyptian opposition. As it was elsewhere in the Arab world, rights language was deployed in Egypt both in pursuit of specific goals but, more generally, to inform a structural critique. This structural critique was essential in how, in Yefet's words, "Human rights became an instrument used to express the need and desire on the part of a variety of social forces to reconstruct political and social institutions as well as collective identity" (p. 2). This was most vividly expressed in the famous Tahrir Square demonstrations, which were sometimes explicitly about rights-based demands and virtually always informed by human rights language. A series of remarkably detailed case studies allow Yefet to show how human rights "became the language of resistance" (p. 10) in key battles, specifically over free expression and apostasy and the rights of minorities and of women. These details reveal much about underlying currents that were generally overlooked at the time, but which were normatively reshaping from below the politics of Egypt (and other countries) even during a period that seemed, superficially at least, static. …

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