A job or a calling? Egypt's human rights movement from the Mubarak era to Sisi

A job or a calling? Egypt's human rights movement from the Mubarak era to Sisi
Comment: Founder of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Bahey el-Din Hassan takes a in-depth look at the personalities and debates that have shaped Egypt's human rights activism.
12 min read
24 Apr, 2020
An man flies the Egyptian flag in Tahrir Square, Cairo, 1 February, 2011 [Getty]
It was the morning of 3 July, 2013, with the military coup to be declared by Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi later that same day.

Fourteen Egyptian rights organisations, under the auspices of the Forum of Independent Human Rights Organisations, released a joint statement condemning violence from both supporters and opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The statement called for an end to the violence and for peaceful expression to be protected for all. Cautioning against a potential coup, the statement urged the army to refrain from taking any action "on behalf of the people." 

Less than a week later, the organisations attempted to reach a position on the military's massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters at the Republican Guards' headquarters. Meeting at the offices of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies - the coordinator of the Forum - some of the organisations called for a reconsideration of the joint position on the coup.

They withdrew from the forum on the spot or later, while the remaining organisations condemned the massacre in a statement. Later that same month, only seven of the organisations signed the statement rejecting Sisi's call for a mandate for the ostensible purpose of combatting terrorism.

Yet it is worth noting that all those secular rights organisations - regardless of whether or not they signed the statement or withdrew from the forum that day or later -share a common belief in the universality of human rights without religious or cultural compromise or accommodation. They have consistently defended the rights of all Egyptians, without discrimination.

This ethical stance, which transcends ideology, religion, and politics, was not created in a vacuum; it was cultivated throughout the course of a long history

This ethical stance, which transcends ideology, religion, and politics, was not created in a vacuum; it was cultivated throughout the course of a long history. 

Since the inception of the human rights movement in Egypt, to which I have been both an eyewitness and a participant, I've engaged with every human rights group and five generations of prominent figures. I've engaged with opposition leaders, secular and Islamist alike, in Egypt and the Arab region. I've discussed human rights issues in bilateral meetings with Egyptian officials, including a prime minister, two interior ministers, and foreign and justice ministers.

Along with other rights defenders, I've promoted human rights in meetings with officials from the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice, Interior, and Social Solidarity. I've met with the director of General Intelligence, and have lectured police officers and senior officers from the National Security Agency.

I have been privileged to speak about human rights with US President Barack Obama and his aides in the White House, with secretary-generals of the United Nations and the Arab League, with every American secretary of state from Colin Powell to John Kerry, and with an array of ministers and senior officials from Europe and the Arab region, including Egypt's ambassadors abroad.

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The following lines are highlights from my chapter in a forthcoming edited volume to be published in the US. I have previously written about the formative period of the rights movement in several articles, which were later collected as a chapter in another book published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2006. Fourteen years later, the title of that chapter - "The Defense of Islamists: A Question of Human Right Ethics" - remains relevant. 

Twenty-five years earlier, a different group of rights defenders had already engaged in the same debate as the rights defenders did in 2013. As it happens, I had been a party to the debate in 1988, advocating for the same position as I would later in 2013. 

On 20 April, 1985, 50 Egyptians met to establish what would become known as the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR). Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed Ibrahim Kamel was elected president. The Board of Trustees included public figures from diverse political backgrounds - though all secular - and leaders of the first generation of the contemporary human rights movement. This set the movement apart from three pioneering rights initiatives, led by intellectual Mahmoud Azmi in the 1930s, and Ibrahim Talaat and Wahid Raafat in the 1970s. 

Read more: Egypt: The permanent coup

In 1986, several trustees left the board. The general assembly elected younger members, among them this author, to replace them. These new members had begun their political life in the wake of the June 1967 defeat and amid the emergence of the student movement the following year. 

The rise of the student movement, with its demands for democracy, was a milestone. It heralded the return of politics and dissent to the public sphere, which had been nationalised after the July 1952 coup. Since 2013, Sisi has been attempting to turn the clock back, to before 21 February, 1968. With varying degrees of dynamism, the student movement of 1968 persisted for nearly half a century, across several generations. Its mission was taken up by numerous political, labour, media, cultural, arts, and youth initiatives. The human rights movement, which blossomed nearly two decades after the student movement's inception, was one of its fruits. 

Mohammed Ibrahim Kamel was enormously popular among Egyptians since rejecting the Camp David Accords with Israel and loudly resigning from the government in protest. Thanks to his abiding, deeply held liberal tendencies, he would play a crucial role in the rights movement. From the first meeting of the reconstituted EOHR Board of Trustees in 1986, differences gradually rose to the surface between the majority of first-generation members and two recently elected members. It was not a generational conflict but a disagreement over several related questions:

The rise of the student movement, with its demands for democracy, was a milestone. It heralded the return of politics and dissent to the public sphere

Was the EOHR's role simply to preach human rights principles or to defend them as well? Did this defense include Islamists who themselves violated human rights? And which constituted more of a threat to human rights - the regime of Hosni Mubarak or the Islamists?

When in the spring of 1988, Interior Minister Zaki Badr ordered the EOHR to suspend its activities since it didn't have a license, the Board of Trustees was compelled to settle the debate and take definitive action.

Rights advocates would ask some of these same questions after 3 July, 2013, and the first-generation human rights movement's responses to Zaki Badr's suspension order would be echoed in the contemporary movement's responses to a similar ultimatum from the Sisi government, following his 2014 election to the presidency.

In 1988, the majority of the board, including Kamel, wanted to suspend the EOHR's activities. The minority argued for continuing to operate as an organisation "under establishment." The minority's view was that the organisation would derive its legitimacy from international human rights conventions rather than from the Egyptian NGO law, which stood in opposition to these conventions and the Egyptian constitution.

The EOHR must defend the human rights of all Egyptians including Islamists, asserted the minority of the EOHR board. Defending the rights of those who violated human rights themselves, they contended, was neither a  defense of their crimes nor an accommodation of their political or ideological beliefs. Given the composition of the board, the debate was moot and the issue required no vote. Kamel insisted, however, that such a historic decision could only be made after consulting EOHR members. 

Most board members were secularists, as were a majority of members present at the consultation meeting. Nevertheless, they supported the position of the other secular minority, which I had the honour of presenting. Although the decisions of the consultative meeting were not binding to the Board of Trustees, Kamel proposed adopting the minority position and even proposed the election of a new head from the minority to the board, to better represent its position. I was then nominated by him to assume the position. 

In the years that followed, Kamel, from his position as president, would become the greatest defender of the human rights of individuals whose policies and positions he personally opposed. Defending the human rights of all persons, even those who themselves violated human rights or espoused anti-human rights stances, would be the philosophy guiding the trajectory of the core rights movement. 

After the summer of 1988, the EOHR opened up to the second generation of rights defenders, bringing in luminaries like academic Mohamed el-Sayed Said, the deputy director of al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, and lawyer, Negad el-Borai. The two joined the EOHR secretariat, based on my proposal to the board as a condition of assuming its leadership, and later became members of the Board of Trustees. That same year, Said would become the first member of the board to be tortured. 

Mohamed el-Sayed Said strove to articulate and refine the conceptual framework for the work of rights organisations in Egypt. He drafted the first platform for a rights group, adopted by the general assembly of the EOHR in 1989. In 1994, he and I would establish the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies as a regional Arab organisation. Said assumed the editorship of its journal, Rowaq Arabi - which he named - until his death in 2009. The sole rights-oriented journal in the Arab region, Rowaq Arabi opened its pages to rights advocates and academics from throughout the world. It continued in print until 2015, when it was converted to an online journal in Arabic and English. 

Negad el-Borai established the first legal defense unit in a rights organisation and oversaw the human rights complaints received by the EOHR. With the EOHR possessing no financial resources to speak of, el-Borai's office assumed the costs for lawyers and legal fees. All employees at the organisation worked on a volunteer, pro-bono basis, with the exception of a part-time secretary whose salary was paid by the Arab Organization for Human Rights.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces observed all this activity with growing trepidation

In fact, the most active members of the Board of Trustees financed their activities out of their own pockets, dedicating countless hours of their labour toward ensuring the needs of the organisation were met; covering legal, cultural, international, and administrative requirements. 

The EOHR became an important civic actor at this time, recognised by the government on a de facto basis. I met twice with Interior Minister Abdul Halim Moussa during this period, as well as with senior officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, although the EOHR only received a license 20 years after its establishment. The political opposition, both secular and Islamist, began to treat the EOHR as a prize to be won, vying to subordinate it to their own ends.

From 1989 to 1993, three heated intellectual disputes were underway within the organisation. Because these internal debates intersected with major political questions, they became issues of significant public interest as well. The first was the question of the legitimacy of using international instruments to defend human rights, which implicitly meant bringing foreign government pressure to bear upon the Egyptian government. 

The second revolved around the legitimacy of foreign funding, after local funding sources were tapped out. The third debate centered on the independence of rights organisations, not only from governments, but from opposition parties and fronts as well. All these debates within the EOHR were settled by the end of 1993, and public opinion and the historical context gradually reconciled with the outcome, as international activity, foreign funding, and political independence became the unquestioned watchwords for rights activity in Egypt.

Over the next quarter century, dozens of rights organisations would be founded. However all those that were dominated or co-opted by the government or opposition groups ultimately disintegrated or fragmented. New organisations became involved in legal aid and the rehabilitation of victims of torture. They submitted memos to parliament for the revision of laws and the constitution, engaged in strategic litigation in individual and constitutional cases, monitored general elections, and worked to spread a human rights culture.

They published hundreds of books on reform - political, legal, constitutional, judicial, social, religious, and cultural - and trained young people in human rights. 

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces observed all this activity with growing trepidation. On 3 February, 2011, days before President Mubarak stepped down, the military raided the Hisham Mubarak Law Center; marking the first time in Egypt's history that the military police raided a rights organisation. Director Ahmed Seif al-Islam, along with other staff, were arrested and detained in a military prison. In December, military forces raided the offices of several Egyptian and international rights organisations, referring many staff members to a military trial. 

With the election of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to the presidency, the co-option and containment of independent rights groups became a priority. The government issued administrative notices to organisations and then shut them down, and amended the NGO law. Rights defenders were investigated, the assets of organisations and their directors were frozen, and many were banned from travel.

For the first time, state security began targeting rights defenders with enforced disappearance, torture, death threats, and public assaults. Family members of rights defenders were also arrested and tortured as a means to pressure or deter these defenders. State security routinely orchestrated media smear campaigns, slandering rights defenders as agents of foreign states or the Muslim Brotherhood who conspired against national security.

In an astounding irony, despite the unprecedentedly draconian security and judicial assault, and despite the severest deterioration of the human rights situation in Egypt since the inception of the movement, human rights awareness is broader and deeper than it was 35 years ago. The discord over human rights issues between Islamists and liberals has receded to an unprecedented point since the emergence of the rights movement. 

Human rights awareness is broader and deeper than it was 35 years ago

Although some Egyptians believe that foreign funding corrupts rights organisations or diverts them from their mission, an assessment of the movement's trajectory over the past 35 years demonstrates that money is not the guiding factor.

In the formative years of the movement, built on the herculean volunteer efforts of a handful of defenders, there were those who viewed human rights as a higher calling to struggle. There were also those who viewed it as a job, albeit unpaid. Despite the influx of funds in later years, the same two camps persisted, though the cast of characters changed.

Yet after Sisi, with unprecedented security pressure to accept containment or co-option, to return to the choice of 1988 - to evangelise the general principles of human rights while remaining silent about their reality - it is no longer possible to reconcile the views of human rights as a job or a mission. 

In Saskia Brechenmacher's book published in the US examining the interplay of human rights organisations in Egypt and other dictatorships, the author writes, "While the small circle of highly proactive [Egyptian] human rights organisations has borne the brunt of state repression since 2013, these groups have paradoxically been better positioned to persist in the face of repeated government interference."

Bahey el-Din Hassan is the Director and founder of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS). He is the author of several publications on democracy and human rights in the Arab World.

Follow him on Twitter: @BaheyHassan

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.