Panel Examines Human Rights in Egypt at Pivotal Moment

As the anti-Mubarak demonstrations continued across the world in Tahrir Square in Cairo, a panel of experts weighed in on how the movement was evolving, and what would need to happen in order to make sure it was sustainable and fully realized its goals, even after the possible removal of Mubarak from power.

The panel of experts convened at American University Washington College of Law at "From Crisis to Opportunity: Human Rights in Egypt and Beyond" included Jack Duvall, president of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, T. Kumar, director of International Advocacy at Amnesty International, and Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, who dialed in via phone from the ground in Egypt. The panel was moderated by Hadar Harris, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, and was webcast live.

Movements with Common Elements

The panel started by explaining the series of events that had led to the Egyptian protests, including the unrest in Tunisia resulting from the death of 26-yar-old Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire to protest the poor economic conditions and unemployment that plagued his country. The protests in Tunisia sparked a similar reaction in Egypt.

Duvall noted the common elements of each movement.

"The core dynamics of all these changes is the use of civilian-based actions to disrupt the operations of the state by compromising their interests, and make them consider giving ground," Duvall said.

Kumar noted that the events in Tunisia, which led to the unrest in Egypt and the eventual overthrow of the 30 year Mubarak regime, will continue to resonate around the world.

"Believe me," said Kumar. "This is not going to stop in Egypt."

Kumar also looked ahead to the time period after the regime change as being most critical to the future of Egypt.

"What's going to happen after he [Mubarak] steps down will determine whether or not this is an opportunity to improve human rights in Egypt and elsewhere," Kumar said.

Duvall also considered the importance of the period after the initial success of a revolution, saying that transitions break down because the resistance doesn't take concessions that would have permitted the movement to survive.

Stork of Human Rights Watch stressed the importance of watching the right indicators in the wake of such a change.

"We have to keep our eye not on personalities, but on entire institutions to see signs of real change," he said.

Looking Ahead: Who Will be the Next Egypt?

Panelists offered opinions on places where the world could see more popular resistance resulting from the recent movements in the Middle East. Stork noted the dire economic situation in Yemen, and its high levels of political instability. Kumar stressed the challenges that Palestine presents in the wake of the recent unrest. Duvall said that his eye is on Syria, who has just opened up access to Facebook for its citizens, a move Duvall dubbed "prophylactic reformism."

"Damascus has long been considered a center for Arab intellectualism, and I should think they would have something to say about these recent events," Duvall said.

Before the panel wrapped up, Stork summed up the feelings from the scene in Cairo.

"It's an exhilarating time here. We know Egypt isn't going to be the same as it was at the beginning of the year. What Egypt will become will not be determined tonight but in the coming weeks and months. The struggle goes on."

Less than 24 hours after the panel, President Mubarak stepped down after delivering a defiant speech that only served to bolster the energy of the resistance movement in Egypt.

"The forced resignation of Mubarak is a breathtaking example of people exercising their rights to expression and assembly and demanding accountability from their government," Harris Harris, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, said of the news. "However, the hard work begins now. It is unclear how committed the military will be to extending fundamental human rights to the Egyptian people and to ensuring free and fair elections to create a credible and legitimate transition. Political prisoners need to be released. The Emergency Law which has been in place for 30 years needs to be repealed. Fundamental human rights and civil liberties need to be adhered to throughout the transition and beyond."