There is so much tragedy in the Arab world these days. Activists tortured to death in Moroccan jails, Libya imploding, Egypt returned to quasi-pharaonic rule, Gaza in rubble, Syria and Iraq in a twilight zone of barbarity. But while Egypt has not seen the same level of bloodshed as other countries in the region, the tragedy is, from one perspective, greater precisely because of the extent of its descent from the historic achievement of removing Hosni Mubarak from power and moving, however haltingly, towards real democratic reforms in the first two years after his departure.
Nothing reflects the disastrous situation in Egypt now better than the plight of the country’s human rights organisations, over which the government is again trying to exert full control through obligatory government registration. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the human rights community for enabling the #Jan25 revolution. If the revolution was about dignity, that understanding and guarantee of dignity has always depended on the implementation of a universal and inclusive human rights agenda.
Egypt’s human rights community is one of the most important in the Arab world, and along with Palestine and Tunisia, among the region’s first. As human rights pioneer Fateh Azzam explained to me, if Palestinians were isolated by the Israeli occupation and Tunisians severely limited by the “domestic occupation” of Ben Ali’s regime, Egyptian human rights groups had the possibility and ability to take the lead in promoting a regional movement for human rights as well as making human rights discourses an important part of the domestic political vocabulary.
Indeed, beginning in the 1980s, Egyptian human rights organisations were the unsung heroes of the struggle for democracy and greater rights. Using a law-based approach that could rise above narrowly ideological and/or partisan politics, they defended the rights of most marginalised groups – fellahin and workers, women and Islamists, communists and Nasserists, homosexuals and children. The human rights community did more than most actors to pry open the spaces out of which a vibrant civil society emerged in the 1990s, a fraught time in which the Mubarak government was simultaneously tackling a violent terrorist insurgency, imposing a neoliberal economic programme, and dealing with the collapse of what remained of the Nasser-era authoritarian bargain.
The human rights community did more than most actors to pry open the spaces out of which a vibrant civil society emerged in the 1990s, a fraught time in which the Mubarak government was simultaneously tackling a violent terrorist insurgency, imposing a neoliberal economic programme, and dealing with the collapse of what remained of the Nasser-era authoritarian bargain.
Moreover, their work helped create a basis for heretofore separate and even competing movements to see each other as all having the same fundamental rights.
“Our greatest accomplishment is that [today] rights issues are part of the domestic agenda, and in the state, in their discourse, in academic research, in the media, and the legal profession. We managed to create a social consensus against torture. That didn’t exist 10 years ago,” one long-term human rights activist explained.
That activist was Ahmed Seif al-Islam, cofounder of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center. Seif died after a long illness on August 28, having almost tasted victory during the heady days of February 2011, but ultimately dying with two of his three children imprisoned for engaging in the same struggles that saw him jailed more than a generation ago.
Seif’s son, the well-known blogger and social media pioneer Alaa Abdel Fattah, is spending his third term in prison, this time with a 15-year sentence, in the same prison as his father. He has been on a hunger strike to protest his detention and treatment since August 18. Seif’s daughter, Sanaa, has spent the last three months in jail awaiting trial on charges of participating in an illegal protest, when she marched in support of freedom for her brother and other jailed activists.
More than most, Seif helped to inculcate a discourse of fundamental rights that all Egyptians should enjoy, regardless of their religious, political or social identities. During a press conference Seif held in January protesting his son’s reincarceration, Seif exclaimed, “I wanted you to inherit a democratic society that guards your rights, my son, but instead, I passed on the prison cell that held me, and now holds you.”
Uprising against Egypt’s ‘cancer’
Having been tortured himself, Ahmed Seif understood that perhaps the defining issue facing Egyptians was torture, the experience that motivated him to help found the Hisham Mubarak Center.
“Torture is like a cancer that eats up the nation’s youth and its ability to change, rebel, and criticise. Hence I decided that this is my domain.”
One of the most difficult parts of working with activists in the Arab world is the reality of torture. Except in times of insurrection or civil war, regimes can’t murder citizens by the thousands, but it can torture them by the tens of thousands. The research and publications of groups such as Hisham Mubarak and the El Nadim Center for the Management and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence offer truly horrific portraits of life under a ruthlessly deep state, which continued to exert violent control over Egypt’s political landscape during Mubarak’s time, and then through the transitional and the Muslim Brotherhood periods that followed.
And during the revolution, there were few if any spaces outside Tahrir Square itself more important to the organisation of the revolution than the offices of the Hisham Mubarak Center in the old neighbourhood of Bab al-Luq. If you wanted to check the pulse of the protests and didn’t want to brave the increasing crowds and layers of civil security to get into Tahrir, you could always head over to the centre and inevitably meet up with many of Egypt’s most important pro-democracy activists.
The crucial organising role played by the centre – which was recognised in a backhanded sort of way when security forces raided it and arrested staff and visitors on February 3, 2011 , only a day after revolutionaries won Tahrir in the infamous Battle of the Camel – reminds us while the young people who occupied, defended and organised Tahrir were perhaps the public face of the revolution, their parents’ generation of seasoned activists played an equally important role, using their decades of experience fighting the government to help provide a deeper strategic vision and connection with international networks.
Not surprisingly, when I finally caught up with Alaa on February 12 at a restaurant in Zamalek, his father was there too, surrounded by roughly two dozen young activists deep in discussion about the best way to keep the momentum going against a military that was refusing to yield power during the transition period.
From long experience battling the Mubarak regime (he directly confronted then head of military intelligence, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, during two days of intense questioning after his arrest at the centre on February 3, 2011), Seif knew that even the most just claims would not bring real change to their society.
His children knew this equally well, which is why they both focused on direct anti-military activism (Alaa and Sanaa’s sister Mona Seif was a cofounder of the Say No to Military Trials network), and particularly in Alaa’s case were always working to develop new mechanisms for training the post-Tahrir generation of activists the kinds of technical and entrepreneurial skills that helped them survive from Mubarak to Sisi.
A legacy of fighters
While activist and journalist Sara Khorshid expressed bewilderment at “how making a great man suffer – by depriving him of the company of his son and daughter on his deathbed – could bring the country stability or bring its people anything good”, I think it’s pretty clear why the regime punished him right up to his last breath, and continues to take a hardline against his children.
Quite simply, with the imposition of the old/new order under Sisi, there is little room left to discipline what remains of the revolutionary movement. All that’s left is punishment and spectacle.
Book publisher Sherif Boraie, another veteran of the Tahrir uprising and publisher of one of the most beautiful and powerful memorial books of the revolution, Wall Talk, best summed up Ahmed Seif’s long-term impact on Egypt’s still young revolutionary scene with the following tweet: “Ahmed Seif passed away in peace, bequeathing us many fine fighters – no guns just dignity, in a world gone mad.”
Even as his children waste away in prison, Seif’s and their example, like those of the countless others who’ve sacrificed their bodies and freedom in the fight for real democracy in Egypt, is helping the idea of revolutionary and systematic change seem just a little less mad in a country and a region increasingly devoid of hope.
Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University. His new book is One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States, coedited with Ambassador Mathias Mossberg.