Nabil al-Hilali has been active as a labor and civil liberties lawyer in Egypt since the 1950s. He serves on the executive committees of the Egyptian Bar Association and the International Committee of Democratic Jurists. He ran as an independent in the parliamentary elections of April 1987. In 1986 he was acquitted after a long trail on charges of being a member of the illegal Egyptian Communist Party. His defense in that trial has been published in Beirut as a small book called In Defense of Liberty. Joe Stork interviewed him in Cairo in February 1987.
How long have you been engaged in this work of defending workers and political prisoners?
38 years, sometimes as a lawyer and sometimes as a defendant myself.
Did you spend some years in prison?
I spent about five years under Nasser, from 1959 to 1964. And under Sadat and Mubarak for two years. Actually, it was a three year sentence under Sadat and two months of that was under Mubarak until they discovered I was there and let me out.
How would you assess the situation in Egypt today regarding democracy and human rights?
We have a very nice constitution which, for the first time in our history, has plenty of articles concerning human rights. We also have, for the first time since 1954, many political parties. But this is not really democracy.
Egypt has signed two human rights treaties. Nasser signed one in 1967, but it was not put into application because it was not published in the Official Gazette, as required to become law. It was finally published in 1982. In any event, important human rights are widely violated. For example, article eight of the covenant of economic and cultural rights affords the right to strike. But here a strike is still a crime. A recent example is the case of the railway drivers, in July 1986. They arrested about 300 workers who were sitting in at the headquarters.
How long were they held?
A few hours, for most. But 37 stayed in jail for two months, until the court released them. Their trial just ended [February 1987].
What was the charge?
Going on strike. They are civil servants.
So they can’t strike?
This is the opinion of the state attorney. We have another opinion.
How many political prisoners would you say are in Egypt today?
About a thousand, most of them Islamists. There is also a small group accused of conspiring with Libya. There was a group of Egyptian Communists. Some were convicted in the spring of 1986 but the high court cancelled their sentences in February 1987.
I was one of the defendants myself. We were accused of two things: establishing an illegal party — the Egyptian Communist Party — and distributing illegal leaflets. We were all acquitted of the first charge. The courts had no evidence that we are members of the Communist Party. But those who had leaflets confiscated at home — 11 or 12 persons — were sentenced to two and three years in prison.
Are you involved in defending the Islamists?
Yes, I am. In 1981 we shared the same cell in jail. About 41 people accused of belonging to the Egyptian Communist Party were arrested in March 1981.
You were released after Sadat’s assassination?
Yes, in December 1981.
And it’s this case in which the sentence was just cancelled [in February]?
So of 1,000 political prisoners, maybe 900 or so are Islamist?
Yes, but earlier this year there were also about 2,000 of the Central Security conscripts who had mutinied in February 1986. They have now all been released by the court, after about a year in custody.
How does this situation compare with conditions prevailing in Egypt over the last 30 years, say?
There is a general atmosphere which did not exist before. There is no confiscation of opposition newspapers such as occurred in the days of Sadat. But this is like the right of the lion in his cage in the zoo to roar. This is very important to attract visitors to the zoo. There are severe restrictions on the right to organize, the right to hold meetings. Even the legal parties of the opposition do not have the right to call a rally in the streets, no meetings where they can speak to the people, no assembly. They must do it inside their headquarters, which are very few and very small.
In contrast to the liberalization that has occurred, there is the fact that once again the state is committing atrocities and torture, especially against the Islamists, on a scale that exceeds even that under Nasser. We must admit that under Sadat’s regime torture on a large scale was stopped. Now it has resumed. This has been acknowledged in numerous judgments in court.
The right to establish parties is very circumscribed. Parties have been established by government decree. Sadat said, I want a left party, I want a right party and I am the center party. You must have the approval of a committee comprising ministers and members of the ruling party, each of whom has the right to veto. You cannot establish a party on a religious basis, or on a class basis. So you can’t form a communist party because we cannot say that we are the working class party. Nasserists do not have the right to form a party, because the law says that no two parties can have the same orientation, and the government considers itself the party of the July  Revolution. [The Nasserists’ petition to establish a party is currently under appeal in the courts. — Eds.]
In the [April 1987] elections, any candidate who attacked the peace treaty with Israel could be imprisoned and deprived of his or her political rights. You can criticize the constitution, but you can’t criticize Camp David.
Nobody has the right to edit a newspaper except the parties. Otherwise you must set up a firm with at least a quarter of a million pounds capital, but no partner in this firm can have more than 500 pounds. So you must find an army of partners. [The Nasserists have since begun to publish a weekly. — Eds.]
Are these restrictions new?
Some go back to the British occupation in 1914. But Sadat increased the penalties. An illegal street demonstration under British occupation law got you about three months imprisonment and a small fine. Sadat, after the 1977 food riots, made the penalty life imprisonment for any demonstration, for any strike, for any university sit-in. After Egypt ratified the Human Rights Covenant, they were obliged to cancel this special law. But strikes are punished with other laws.
The situation seems to have improved. Does this represent a trend?
When I talk about a thousand political prisoners, I mean who are in prison now. Somewhere between 10 and 20,000 Egyptians have been arrested at some point over the last few years. Our courts are very liberal. So they release large numbers of those arrested.
This is better than many other places, where they’re not released.
In Egypt we are relatively better off than in any other Arab country.
I think it’s fair to say that the human rights situation in the Arab world as a whole has gotten much worse. Egypt seems to have at least not gotten much worse. What are the worst human rights problems in Egypt today?
First, torture; second, the permanent state of emergency; third, restrictions on the right to organize. The state of emergency was declared in 1939 and again in May 1948. Then once again after the war in 1956, and so on. So most of our life we have been under a state of emergency. This gives enormous prerogatives to the government.
Do you expect the situation to improve?
No, because I’m expecting that class struggle will intensify, especially since the government has accepted most of the conditions of the International Monetary Fund. Strikes are mounting.
What restraints exist on the government?
The problem is that the crisis of the regime rests not with the opposition but with the state of affairs. The opposition has failed to build a united front. Some elements bargain with the regime, while others have no illusions about a change for the better.
Many intellectuals here feel that the question of human rights and democracy is very much on the agenda of the progressive forces. There have been periods when the left has not been the foremost defender or practitioner of human rights.
Yes. Right now the left is playing a very important role in the battle for human rights.
And it is not just opportunism?
No. We even defend the human rights of our enemies, the Islamists, and we have a very firm stand against atrocities against them.
Do you have any relations with other Arab lawyers in other countries?
Yes. All the bar associations of the different Arab countries belong to the United Arab Lawyers’ Federation. Every two years we have a congress.
Has this organization historically taken a good stand on the issue?
We had a meeting in Sudan in February  which dealt with human rights. Every country presented a report against the violations, but most of them didn’t reflect reality. Only Egypt’s and Sudan’s bars, and perhaps the Moroccan bar, were reasonably accurate.
What does it mean that the Arab Lawyers’ Federation takes this wonderful stand but the countries just lie or cannot tell the truth?
In the resolutions, every country can take decisions against infringements in other countries. When you make a resolution against human rights violations in Iraq, Syria will vote with you. When you make it against Syria, Iraq will vote for it, and so on. There were resolutions against everybody.