Over five tumultuous years in Egypt, the independent human rights community moved from a fairly parochial role chipping away at the Mubarak regime’s legitimacy, one torture case at a time, to media stardom in 2011, and from fielding a presidential candidate, who won over 134,000 votes, in 2012 to facing closure and the risk of prosecution two years later.

Much has been written about the role of political activists and the labor movement in the uprising that ousted Husni Mubarak, yet there has been little study of the role of the human rights community. The lack of attention is surprising, given the longevity of human rights institutions and the ubiquitous presence of human rights defenders in the media after Mubarak fell. Perhaps the human rights community made scrutiny seem superfluous with its very deliberate self-promotion aimed at enhancing perceptions of its power and influence. Yet if one looks beyond this self-aggrandizing narrative, there is much to study in the resilience of small organizations that managed to survive 30 years of authoritarian rule.

In the late 1990s, students and others in their early twenties looking for political means of revolt had only three options: the Muslim Brothers, the odd protest about Palestine or Iraq, or human rights advocacy. Existing opposition political parties held little attraction for younger Egyptians, who saw them as stale and ineffective. Human rights activism was one of the few subversive avenues open to non-Islamists.

Yet it was not the human rights community as a collective that planned and mobilized the January 2011 protests that grew into the uprising, although several rights defenders were involved on an individual basis. Was the lack of collective action the ultimate failure to make systemic change happen, a reflection of the limited ambitions human rights defenders accept when they agree to lobby a repressive government? Did that reformist approach end up granting legitimacy to the regime?

No, because the independent human rights community in Egypt maintained a focus on police abuses that cut to the heart of Mubarak’s police state. As long as the Nadeem Center was reporting on torture and death in custody and the Hisham Mubarak Law Center was defending Islamists and workers on wildcat strike in Mahalla al-Kubra, the state’s hatred for these organizations was assured.

Throughout the 2000s, the human rights community played a supporting and enabling role in political activism and protest. The leadership and much of the staff of human rights organizations came from the Egyptian left and were organically intertwined with groups like Kifaya, which rose to prominence in 2005 calling on Mubarak to retire without handing down the presidency to his son. The Front for the Defense of Egyptian Protesters, formed in 2008, dispatched human rights lawyers to do battle with local prosecutors, trying to secure the release of arrested protesters, publishing their names and publicizing any ill treatment, and coordinating the provision of material support. In 2009-2010, meetings and training sessions of the April 6 youth movement in solidarity with workers were often held at the offices of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center. Ending torture was the rallying cry of the We Are Khalid Sa’id group and the unprecedented demonstrations that a new generation of activists held over a three-month period in Alexandria and Cairo in the summer of 2010.

Human Rights Advocacy in the Mubarak Era

Egypt’s human rights community has existed since 1985, the date of the establishment of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. The independent human rights community in Egypt, though too limited in scope and impact to be called a movement, is comprised of around 19 organizations, which are members of the informal Forum of Independent Egyptian Human Rights NGOs. Membership in that coalition, which issues joint statements, is a reliable indicator of the extent to which an organization is willing to confront state abuse.

These organizations worked to tell the story of the systematic police abuse that Mubarak wanted to keep hidden, to counter the regime’s narrative of political reform moving hand in hand with economic reform, by showing the protection from accountability that security services enjoyed. In Mubarak’s last decade in particular, human rights groups stuck to “naming and shaming” because it worked. If they could create enough media attention around a particular case and a big enough headache for the regime, it would become easier to get the detainee released or, once in a while, compel the state to sacrifice a police officer to the prosecutor. The groups also relied on strategic litigation and advocacy with third governments as forms of pressure on the authorities.

Mubarak’s policy, for the most part, was to allow Egyptian human rights NGOs to operate outside of the scope of the law. Keeping the NGOs in a gray zone worked well: They remained under constant threat of closure or prosecution and, at the same time, the government could point to their existence as evidence of space for dissent. Organizations registered as civil companies, law firms and, in the case of the Nadeem Center, which provides psychological care to victims of torture and sexual abuse, a clinic. For the genuinely committed, this arrangement provided freedom to do real human rights work, such as monitoring and documenting abuses by the police. But it left organizations open to cyclical crackdowns. Prosecutions of Hafez Abu Saada in 1998 and Saad Eddin Ibrahim in 2001 served to remind the human rights community how vulnerable they were.

Like any other political organization, human rights groups had to live with heavy surveillance and harassment from the Interior Ministry. This unwanted attention, along with constant smears in the press, meant that no wealthy Egyptian would fund a human rights organization for fear of reprisal against business interests. Human rights groups were therefore completely dependent on foreign funding for survival. Many of the most serious groups made deliberate choices about who they would accept funding from, refusing to take money from the US or British governments on foreign policy grounds, and preferring funds from foundations or a Scandinavian government wherever possible. Yet this discriminating approach did little to mitigate the reputational damage associated with accepting foreign funding.

The dependence on foreign funding, combined with the “naming and shaming” tactic, made it easy for the government to defame human rights groups. The groups stood accused of carrying out the agenda of the donor, usually the United States, and more often of being actual agents of a foreign power.

Egyptian human rights groups have struggled with questions of local legitimacy since their inception. Using the international human rights law framework to articulate local demands for change has meant an inherent dialectic between the local and the international. It has opened human rights groups to allegations of undermining local culture or religion as well as being handmaidens of Western imperialism. Rights lawyers and researchers would constantly integrate translation of rights discourse into locally relevant language about political and socio-economic struggle. Women’s rights activists, in particular, had to struggle against religious and cultural rejection among parts of the population, but those who worked on religious minorities and freedom of expression faced problems as well. Mubarak’s rote attack on human rights advocacy was something like, “Let’s put bread on the table first, and then we’ll talk about human rights.” The work on socio-economic rights by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, in particular the ruling on the minimum wage they obtained though litigation, or the work of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights on the pricing of pharmaceuticals, went some way toward countering the stereotype of rights groups that put no priority on social justice issues. But the state media machine was much stronger than independent voices at the time and its narrative dominated.

Independent newspapers like al-Misri al-Yawm and al-Shurouq covered some of the human rights groups’ activities and eventually assigned a journalist to the “civil society” beat. But, other than that, coverage appeared only in English-language local papers such as the Cairo Times or the occasional foreign newspaper. There was limited interest in the Western media in human rights in Egypt because, for the most part, the topic lacked a big-picture news angle.

All of these circumstances meant that the human rights community had limited clout. They were engaged in a continual tug of war with the regime to push back red lines and open up political space. One could argue that the human rights community failed to build a movement to challenge the regime, that it remained sidelined and contained. But, even with such limited space to maneuver, human rights groups managed to be a perennial thorn in the side of the Mubarak regime. And when change came, it used rights-based language.

A Moment of Power

The 2011 uprising suddenly brought human rights center stage in public discourse, which human rights defenders found themselves with new power to shape. The killing of 846 people over three days in January 2011 meant that public anger focused on calls for accountability, justice for the victims and police reform. Demands such as ending the state of emergency were repeated everywhere by protesters and pro-revolution politicians, many of whom probably could not have explained the provisions of the law or why it mattered. Thus did the human rights community succeed in making a very technical question into a powerful slogan. The same happened later in the year, as the No to Military Trials campaign became more visible and the media grew braver in covering abuses by the military. The even more technical question of why trials of civilians in the Egyptian military justice system were inherently unfair became evidence of military incursion into the civilian sphere and, later, with the November 2011 protests, the basis of calls for an end to military rule.

The human rights community experienced an unprecedented moment of power in early 2011. They were sought after by the media, in particular the influential evening talk shows on Egyptian TV, where one could watch ruling generals calling in anonymously or prime ministers being dressed down by novelists and resigning the next day. People like Khalid ‘Ali, Gamal Eid, Bahey el-Din Hassan, Hossam Bahgat and Ahmad Raghib became fixtures on the talk shows.

This day in the sun was not just Mubarak-era “naming and shaming,” however. Under Mubarak the most effective way to apply pressure on the government was via the international media or third governments, in particular the US. Those who saw an over-emphasis on “naming and shaming” criticized the practice because of a sense that human rights organizations had failed to invest in constituency building. In 2011, it was far more effective to lobby political party heads who were meeting with the military, and to jump on every media opportunity to talk about transitional justice and security sector reform, than to waste one’s time meeting the long stream of foreign officials who wanted to visit Tahrir Square and “talk to the youth.” In an age of social media, when followers and retweets are easily totted up, it is no exaggeration to say that human rights activists were among the most important shapers of opinion. This time, however, they could speak with the certainty of a constituency among street protesters at their backs.

In Egypt, being on television bestowed new political status on human rights activists and facilitated better access to politicians and decision-makers. In those first six months, when the government and even the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) wanted to convey at least the appearance of responding to protester demands, the powers that be also for the first time opened their doors to human rights leaders. Ministers started to invite human rights defenders to meetings to discuss new draft laws. In an internally controversial move, four directors of human rights organizations also met with Murad Muwafi, then head of intelligence. SCAF leaders sat with delegations from international human rights organizations—Gen. ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi with Amnesty International and Maj. Gen. Muhammad al-‘Assar with Human Rights Watch. Instead of arresting, smearing or ignoring the human rights defenders, the state had to pay attention to them as political actors in their own right. This moment, however, only lasted as long as the military felt pressure to deliver reform measures to deflect public anger.

By June 2011 things began to change. Gone was the time when renewed protests in Tahrir Square would force the military to allow the investigation of Mubarak and his referral to trial to go forward. The military had come to understand who the protest leaders were and believed it knew how to contain them. The SCAF went on the offensive, accusing the April 6 youth of being foreign agents. The human rights organizations had failed to consolidate the constituencies they had acquired in earlier months, although many of them had restructured to gradually move in that direction. Ahmad Raghib, for instance, founded the National Community for Human Rights, a membership organization seeking to build branches at universities. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights opened regional offices, which had been impossible under Mubarak.

In July 2011 the cabinet, under the guidance of International Cooperation Minister Fayza Abu al-Naga, set up a fact-finding committee to investigate civil society organizations receiving funding for human rights and democracy promotion. The report submitted by security agencies to that committee, in addition to listing every independent human rights organization in Egypt, formed the basis of the 2012 NGO trial, which ultimately put only US organizations in the dock. That report is still alive and is the basis for three travel bans imposed on staff of the NGO Egyptian Democracy Academy.

Surviving State Onslaught

In February 2011, state TV hosts accused protest leaders in Tahrir of being foreign agents working to destabilize the country, inspiring satirist Bassem Youssef to launch his first episodes on YouTube. He laughed off the pathetic attempts by a flailing state to deny the power of people in the square. But in 2014, when the Sisi regime turned its attention to the rights community, there was no Bassem Youssef and nobody was laughing. The legal gray zone they operated in and their dependence on foreign funding kept the rights community in a vulnerable position, and in the aftermath of the coup, they were easy prey for a hyper-nationalist state discourse. The attacks were particularly vicious because the handful of independent rights groups were among the very few non-Islamist voices in Egyptian politics that criticized the mass killing and arrest of protesters linked to the Muslim Brothers.   

In retrospect, the human rights community was perhaps too wrapped up in the opportunities for policy work in early 2011, when they were drafting proposals for police reform and discussing freedom of information laws with the government. There should have been an equal, parallel emphasis on movement building, but the mistake was to assume that there was time. Human rights leaders barely slept in 2011—they had to run their organizations, oversee the work of lawyers representing victims in the police trials around the country and respond to meeting requests from government officials, political party heads and diplomats who wanted policy recommendations. They had to ensure that new abuses by the police and military were being documented, all while educating themselves on comparative transition experiences to learn how to deal with a set of issues they had never faced under Mubarak.

There is much critical self-reflection, and some self-flagellation, going on today within the human rights community. There is consensus that human rights defenders underestimated the challenges of the post-Mubarak era, in particular the activity and determination of the counter-revolutionary forces. Perhaps because of romantic notions of people power, a sense that the tide of history that was on their side for once, rights activists and other pro-revolution political forces in Egypt thought they would have time to reform state institutions and legislative structures. Perhaps one clear lesson learned was the need to institutionalize whatever possible in the first heady months when public sentiment generated momentum and there was political will within the regime to appease protesters with a set of reformist measures.

It was no mean feat, though, that 172 police officers faced trial on murder charges in 2011. Interior Ministry officials still talk of that trauma and its effect on haybat al-shurta, the special status and immunity the police enjoyed under Mubarak. Their bitterness partly explains what sometimes seems petty personal reprisal against activists associated with the 2011 uprising, most of whom are imprisoned today. Above all, the security agencies are intent on preventing a repeat of the uprising.

The long-term impact of the January 2011 uprising will only become clear as the years pass. It is unclear how long the Sisi regime can enforce mass amnesia and pretend that the uprising was directed only at particular personages and not at the bankruptcy of the entire Mubarak-era political and economic system. But Egypt has not gone back to where it was. The rights crisis is the most serious the country has ever faced, in terms of the sheer number of Egyptians killed with impunity, the length and number of detentions, and the ideological positioning by a judiciary that formerly was the sole check on the security forces’ prerogatives. Human rights groups find themselves with few allies and very limited access to a subservient media.

Today, the fact that independent human rights organizations still exist is a small victory in and of itself. To exist as a human rights community means not just to protect the offices but also to confront the regime by documenting and condemning the most serious abuses and getting the word out. Survival was difficult. It took substantial courage for staff to go to the office after the government’s November 10, 2014 ultimatum, when rumors were circulating of arrest warrants for nine high-profile rights defenders. Saner voices within the regime apparently won that round of argument, convincing the hardliners pushing for raids and prosecutions that those measures would be damaging to the government’s image at a time when it is seeking to attract foreign investors and tourists. In early 2011 there were dozens of civil society initiatives for political reform, almost none of which are still in operation. So perhaps there is a level of comfort in the resilience of these organizations, the dedication of the human rights defenders who work for them and their capacity to endure.

How to cite this article:

Heba Morayef "Reexamining Human Rights Change in Egypt," Middle East Report 274 (Spring 2015).

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