The Loaded Question: Which Is More Dangerous?

The overwhelming majority of the founding members of the EOHR (the author among them) had secular backgrounds, and this was reflected in the makeup of its first board of trustees (1985-86). At first, its main work involved confronting the Islamists’ violations of human rights. Also, in cooperation with a women’s group, the EOHR moved to form a new group for the defense of national unity (between Muslims and Christians)—a group that would defend the freedoms of thought, belief, and religion against the formidable pressures of Islamic fundamentalism. This venture required considerable effort and time on the part of the fledgling organization.

The issue of defending Islamists’ human rights was not an easy one to address for people who had spent a good part of their lives in intellectual or political battle against the Islamists. In addition, with the onset of widespread bloody violence, the would-be defenders started to realize that they themselves might become targets—if not immediately, then definitely if the Islamists took power. Could they ignore what the Islamists did to intellectuals and politicians and their lawyers upon taking power in Iran six years earlier and, in the name of human rights, stand

at the side of their potential executioners? The question, in short, was,

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‘‘Which danger is imminent, which is more remote, and of the two which is more dangerous to human rights?’’ This dilemma was not confined to the Egyptian human rights movement. When it was faced in Algeria the result was the founding of two human rights organizations, each focused on a separate pattern of human rights violations— violations by the Islamists for one organization and by the government security apparatuses for the other.

Posed again eight years later in the Tunisian League for Human Rights, the question led to bitter struggles, and the decision the Tunisians reached in 1994 was the opposite of that of the EOHR. It was a victory for the wing that rejected defending the Islamists’ human rights under the misapprehension that the Tunisian authorities would support the human rights movement against the party ‘‘more dangerous’’ to human rights. This perspective eventually greatly weakened the Tunisian league and made it easier for the authorities to marginalize and manipulate it and then to assault its leaders. Today, the Tunisian government brutally suppresses both Islamists and secular human rights defenders.

A human rights organization would undermine its own principles and integrity if it refused to defend Islamists’ human rights. Refusal would mean that political—not human rights—considerations were determining human rights strategies. Further, it would imply an unprincipled political alliance with a government capable of flagrant human rights violations. Lastly, it could require human rights NGOs to relinquish one of their most important roles, namely to strive to make political practice more ethical by making it more consistent with human rights principles—or at least not in opposition to them. In short, a human rights organization making this sort of unholy alliance would be stripped of credibility and more easily marginalized, as has been seen in countries such as Tunisia.

‘‘No’’ would not have been the wise answer to the question of whether or not to defend the human rights of Islamists. The very form of the question implied that governments cannot confront the violence of armed political groups without flagrantly violating human rights. Doubtless, such violent confrontations necessitate elaborate precautions and preventive security measures, and any human rights organization should take this into consideration. But this does not mean that these organizations should overlook practices that almost routinely breach the law and violate human rights on a wide scale.

This was the most serious concern raised in debating the question, for it implied granting prior approval to human rights violations. Considering such a question politicizes the everyday work of human rights

defenders by preoccupying them with the question, ‘‘To what extent

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does this or that position weaken the greater danger (the Islamists) or the imminent danger (the government)?’’ And this question would not be raised only when Islamists were assaulted but also when the EOHR was called on to take a position on the suppression of non-Islamist forces—striking workers, for example. Such political ‘‘calculation’’ is far removed from the defense of human rights, as well as from principles and morals.

Adopting any strategy based on selective application would have meant excluding some categories of victims from the EOHR agenda, depending on the victims’ political or religious backgrounds or, to put it more bluntly, for political reasons stemming from the political orientation of those in charge of the EOHR. This would have been tantamount to discrimination against a category of people, even complicity in the violation of their human rights. Moreover, it would automatically have undermined the EOHR’s credibility and its ability to defend and protect other victims, for human rights organizations possess nothing if not their capacity to mobilize local and international public opinion to pressure governments to stop or curb rights violations. If credibility is undermined in the eyes of the public, the organization in question loses its capacity to act and its influence.

Thus the kernel of the dispute was not the particulars of the EOHR’s position on Islamists but rather what its fundamental strategy would be. Was the EOHR to follow its conscience and act according to internationally recognized principles and mechanisms to defend victims without hesitating at their political, ideological, and religious backgrounds or the charges against them, even if those charges were violations of human rights? Or was it to take the road leading away from the organization’s ethos and principles toward its ultimate self-destruction? This latter was the fate of all human rights institutions established by Islamists in Egypt, and it resulted from their strategy to defend victims from only one political tendency or, more accurately, one political organization—the Muslim Brothers. Within the EOHR the main issue of controversy was the opinion held by one wing—eventually defeated—that criticism of the Egyptian government’s human rights practices and record would undermine its political strength to the benefit of the more dangerous enemy (the Islamists). This led them to argue that the organization should exclude human rights defense activities such as observing, monitoring, and reporting rights violations and restrict its role to cultural activities propagating human rights principles.

Another controversial issue emerged when, about two years after the EOHR was founded, the Egyptian government refused to recognize or deal with it. This development challenged the EOHR to choose between

two responses. The wing in favor of limiting the EOHR’s scope of activity

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suggested dissolving the organization or freezing its activities in order to avoid a clash with the authorities. The other wing argued that the EOHR should stand up to the government, stressing that a human rights organization that cannot defend its own right to exist cannot successfully defend the rights of others. Without delving into the details of that intellectual conflict, suffice it to say that the latter wing prevailed, though it was supported only by a tiny minority on the board of trustees (two of eleven). However, the board made the democratic motion to meet in consultation with the membership, and those attending the general meeting unanimously accepted the minority view. In August 1989, one year after laying out the new plan of action, which included both defense of Islamists and continued work despite governmental pressure, the EOHR paid the price for its new strategy: two of the new board members were arrested and tortured during a wave of detentions that swept up about sixty persons on the contrived charge of ‘‘founding a communist organization.’’

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