Egypt’s courageous few fighting for human rights

By Mohamed Lotfy, Executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms and former researcher for Amnesty International. 

Never before in my 10-year career has working on human rights in Egypt been so dangerous. 

Today in Egypt, human rights activists, lawyers, political activists and independent journalists, all have to live with their phone calls being tapped, endless smear campaigns and hate speech from state-affiliated media as well as continuous harassment and intimidation from the authorities. 

For some, this relentless persecution can even lead to arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention, harsh sentences after unfair trials and sometimes even torture, enforced disappearance at the hands of the state or death in custody as a result of medical negligence. This is pretty much the same list of human rights violations suffered by the people whose rights such defenders are meant to be protecting through their activism and work. 

In the mind-set of those holding power today in Egypt, civil society and the media are merely tools to be used and abused however they wish. Independent civil society is not supposed to exist, let alone organizations working to promote human rights. In such a climate of fear, those who continue to defend human rights are truly bravehearted. 

On 9 January 2016, my colleague, chairperson of the board of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), Dr. Ahmed Abdullah, narrowly escaped an attempt by security agents to abduct him at a coffee shop he often frequents in Giza. Three security agents in plainclothes, arrived in a privately owned unmarked car, raided the coffee shop and questioned staff about him. When they were told that he was not present, they conducted a thorough search of the coffee shop. They failed to produce an arrest or search warrant from the public prosecution meaning there was no legal basis for the search. 

This incident took place following a spate of arrests of peaceful, liberal political activists between December 2015 and early January 2016. Some now face trumped-up charges such as “belonging to the 25 January movement” – a movement that noone has ever heard of before. Others are charged with organizing and participating in protests in defiance of Egypt’s draconian protest law. Many continue to languish in jail in inhuman conditions. Since 27 December 2015, I have been forced to leave my home and go into hiding because of a rumor on social media that security forces were on their way to my home. 

I am certainly not alone in living with the fear of arbitrary arrest. Several key human rights organizations in Egypt have had their offices raided or faced investigations, often for working without authorization or for receiving foreign funding. 

The degree to which security agencies disregard the rule of law, apply laws arbitrarily and flout their duty to uphold rights enshrined in the Egyptian constitution, Egyptian law and not to mention their international human rights obligations, is truly chilling. The Egyptian judiciary seems unable or unwilling to stop grave violations such as enforced disappearances, torture and death in custody. 

My own organization, ECRF, has recently been at the forefront of the battle to call for an end to enforced disappearances in Egypt where scores of people have vanished at the hands of the government. Our campaign “Stop Enforced Disappearance”, mobilized activists on social media and supported the families of the disappeared, providing them with documentation and legal aid. This attention ultimately forced mainstream media to speak out on the issue and as a result, the state’s National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) was obliged to report more than 100 cases of disappearances to the Ministry of Interior. After initial denials, in an embarrassing U-turn, the Ministry of Interior was forced to acknowledge that the names submitted by the NCHR were indeed of individuals detained by the authorities. 

This campaign is perhaps one of the main reasons why our organization and its staff now face routine intimidation and come under regular attack in the media. 

Our recent report on the issue concluded that the National Security Agency under the auspices of the Ministry of Interior, and the Military Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces, are involved in abduction and incommunicado detention of detainees in a number of locations including the infamous Azouli military jail. 

Every human rights defender knows there can be a high price for telling the truth in the face of unjust government actions. But peaceful action, guided by the compass of the principles of humanity, is stronger than all tools of repression. 

Human rights defenders must stick to their human rights compass especially in the face of ruthless intimidation. Uncovering human rights violations everywhere in the world offers inspiration and makes all human rights defenders stronger in their respective country. A human rights battle won in one country and brings us all one step closer to freedom and justice. 

An edited version of this blog was first published by the Independent Voice.