‘Vernacularize’ human rights for revolution

Many of us who took part in the January 25 revolution feel it might be time to run an assessment and try to calculate the gains and losses. If you are not among those who reached the conclusion that the revolution has completely failed, then you should consider thinking of a way forward for it.

I am among those who still believe that the revolution did not fail and it is too early to surrender and declare its death. The revolution had both short and long-term goals. The short-term goals were mainly to bring down the Hosni Mubarak regime and try him for his crimes. The revolution indeed succeeded in toppling Mubarak from power, despite claims that the current regime is an extension of Mubarak’s. I would object to that. The current regime is not Mubarak’s, even though it might have similar characteristics. Another short-term goal was to hold free and fair democratic elections. I was one of those who monitored all the elections that took place after the revolution and I can admit that the elections were fair with high turnout, up until June 2013.

As for the long-term objectives of the revolution, they are manifested in the renowned slogan: “Bread, freedom and social justice.” This encompasses other goals like true democracy, human rights, rule of law, etc. To achieve these goals, we need years and maybe a few decades of hard work. When I was getting ready to take to the streets on January 28, 2011, I said to myself, “If there will be any results of what we are doing today, we might not live to see it, but the next generation will.”

The question that we should be asking ourselves now, considering the current situation under the Mubarak-like rule of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is, “What to do next?” 

From a human rights point of view, the 2011 revolution is the culmination of a successful human rights awareness campaign that took place prior to 2011: One million citizens in the streets demonstrating and demanding their rights and the removal of a dictator, which I consider the maximum output that a human rights movement can dream of. All those years of talking and raising awareness about human rights issues such as torture, freedom of expression, illegal detention, police brutality and many others, finally bore fruit. People acted, demanding their rights and the removal of the dictatorship. The counter-revolution that gained momentum in 2013 reflects, however, a limitation in the scope of the current rights rhetoric  the international human rights language and ideals did not reach the majority of the population, except for the first one million Egyptians who rose up.  

I believe that in 2011, the rights discourse had reached a level of saturation, meaning that its message in its current form couldn’t reach more than those initial one million Egyptians. In order to reach the majority, the human rights language used by activists and cyber activists need to be “vernacularized.” In order to move forward with the revolutionary goals and reach the rest of the population, we need to find a way to reformat our message to appeal to more people and for it to be better received in the local social setting.

Prominent human rights research has recently established a new intellectual movement called the “vernacularization of human rights.” The concept of “vernacularization” was first developed by Benedict Anderson in his book Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Sally Engle Merry of New York University introduced the concept to the field of human rights. She uses the term “vernacularization” to capture the important role that local agents play in making international human rights laws and ideas applicable in the local context; in this case, to challenge local issues such as gender-based violence.

In her article, “Transnational Human Rights and Local Activism: Mapping the Middle,” Merry establishes the main features of vernacularization. According to Merry, vernacularization of human rights is mainly the process where transnational ideas such as human rights are adopted in local social settings to fill the gap between a cosmopolitan awareness of human rights and local sociocultural understandings.

Once human rights activists and organizations in Egypt realise the importance of localizing their language, new windows of opportunity will open. We have seen before how cyberactivists were successful in framing issues like torture to the public. Instead of reproducing international human rights language by saying, for example, that “torture is a crime under ICCPR,” they instead said things like, “torture hurts your dignity.” Instead of using the concept of legality, they framed torture as a threat to one’s “dignity,” which is something that would resonate more in our local social setting. The concept of vernacularization needs to be employed more widely though. It is simply the gate through which activists can access a larger audience and convey the human rights message in the people’s own language.

Localizing the human rights language will also reduce the apprehension of the majority of the population toward activists. We have a situation where human rights activists often speak an unfamiliar language, introducing new values and concepts, trying to induce change in the lives of the majority, who lean towards stability at any cost. Merry discussed this phenomenon, explaining how it is a natural reaction by the public to those who speak an international language that makes them sound like enemies of the state and people, while they are actually working in favor of the people. The problem is that they often converse in a language that people don’t understand. 

If there is a way forward for the January revolution, it is to a great extent through the vernacularization of human rights language. Once we are able to address people in their own language, we will no longer be perceived as intruders or traitors. Human rights values are made to serve people so they can live a better life with dignity and freedom. So long as human rights values are communicated in a language that is alien to a local society, they will be rejected completely and might incite a violent reaction, which is what happened in the case of Egypt.

In order to achieve what we have dreamed of in January 2011, we need to be patient. I believe that the real struggle just started. The 2011 experience proved that the real obstacle against establishing the Egypt we dream of is the decades of enforced ignorance and suppression that created generations of people who reject change. Now it is time to vernacularize and localize how we speak about this change.  

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