The Development of the Local Human Rights Movement

The local human rights movement in Egypt has been shaped by the adverse legal and political circumstances in which it has developed. It is important to note at the outset, given the complications that have attended the local movement’s relations with its international partners and supporters, that the Egyptian human rights movement has domestic origins. Certain political and intellectual elites became dissatisfied with the slow pace of political, social, and economic development in Egypt and began to search for alternative forms of political and social engagement with the state and society.

The calamity of the humiliating Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel dealt a serious blow to the prestige of postindependence republican regimes in a number of Arab states, and to the Nasser regime in Egypt in particular, that was only partially repaired by the Arab successes in the early days of the October 1973 war. The Nasserist ideology of nationalism, single-party rule, and state control of the economy began to lose its gloss as Egyptians realized that the country was not striding forward in its national development. Egypt began to experiment with multiparty politics under President Sadat in 1976, and began a gradual process of economic liberalization. The 1979 Camp David peace treaty with Israel secured the return of the Sinai Peninsula, territory lost to Israel in 1967, but left Egypt isolated from the Arab world for more than a decade and put to rest the myth of Arab unity.

The political, economic, and social malaise of the 1970s created the conditions in which human rights ideas took hold in parts of Egyptian society. As one commentator has noted,

By the 1970s, the developmentalist state had begun to tire. This fatigue created an opportunity to rethink the assumption that had dominated pre and early

postwar politics: that collective rights, first political (independence), then economic (development) must naturally take precedence over individual rights.18

The future leaders of the human rights movement, which developed in the 1980s, came from distinct groups. Some were former senior state officials who had either fallen afoul of the repressive apparatus, developed under Nasser, or had become disillusioned with both the direction of policy and the autocratic manner of rule under President Sadat.

Other leaders from an older generation included independent leftist figures who had chafed under the single-party orthodoxy of the Nasser years and suffered persecution accordingly. Fathi Radwan, a hero of the independence movement, gave the new movement strong nationalist credibility until his death in 1988.

Younger leaders came to the human rights movement after growing

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frustrated with the factionalism and blocked avenues of radical left-wing student politics. Sadat’s Egypt with its controlled democracy left no space for the development of independent opposition political parties. Negad al-Borai, secretary-general of the EOHR between 1993 and 1995, describes their motivation:

Most of us had come to human rights as a way of saving ourselves. Most of us had been active in politics but had become disillusioned with it. In fact we were all from a political background. Human rights looked brand new. It was not narrow and sectarian like party politics had become in Egypt. It was like an adventure and through it we found ourselves.19

Some on the left saw the human rights movement as a way of continuing their political project through other means. One such leader, Amir Salem, describes it thus:

The theoretical basis of what we were trying to do had its roots in the Marxist student movement. We were interested in forming intermediate organizations between the intellectuals and the people.20

As the way was blocked for forming a mass political party, some activists hoped to use the new structures of nongovernmental organizations to mobilize new constituencies for change.

In 1981, in the months prior to his assassination by Muslim extremists, President Sadat had ordered the imprisonment of more than 1,500 independent and opposition figures from across the political spectrum. The detainees included Coptic priests, Muslim Brothers, leftists, nationalists, and liberals. Sadat’s increasingly erratic and arbitrary rule further persuaded activists and independent figures in Egypt that something ought to be done to rein in the power of the state.

While internal factors were paramount in the minds of the founders of the Egyptian human rights movement, international factors cannot be completely discounted. Egypt was not unaware of movements toward democratization, the so-called third wave, that started with transitions away from authoritarianism in southern Europe in the mid-1970s and continued through much of Latin America, culminating with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s.21 Developments in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the Soviet Union had a particular impact on leftists who had looked to these countries for a model. Several leaders of the Egyptian human rights movement readily admit that they have moved away from their Marxist origins to a more liberal orientation.22 By definition, in associating themselves with the human rights movement former Marxists were dissociating themselves from the traditional Marxist view of human rights as bourgeois and individualistic.

Voluntary associations in Egypt have a long history, including in the field of political advocacy around such objectives as women’s suffrage. However, traditionally most voluntary associations have been linked to religious organizations and have been primarily focused in the area of social welfare, providing services to the poor and disadvantaged. The idea of creating associations independent of the government and, indeed, designed with the intention of placing pressure on the government to change its policies was something new.

From the outset, the state has given the local human rights movement, especially in its more militant, adversarial forms, a cold reception. The EOHR, formed as a local chapter of the Cairo-based AOHR in 1985, saw its application to register as an association under Law 32 of 1964, the Law on Associations, rejected by the Ministry of Social Affairs. The AOHR, with its leadership drawn from Egypt’s ruling elite, recommended a low-key approach from its Egyptian chapter until the legal recognition question could be resolved. Young activists, who had received their political education in the more confrontational traditions of the left-wing student movement, were unwilling to be quiescent in the face of official violations of human rights.

The case that made the EOHR’s national reputation involved the government’s suppression of a strike by iron and steel workers at the giant state-owned Helwan factory. Struggling to apply stringent economic structural adjustment criteria imposed by international lending institutions, the government was plagued by unrest among public sector workers and the millions of Egyptians who received public subsidies who saw that their standard of living was under threat. The government used force to break up a sit-in at the Helwan factory and accused the workers of being part of a left-wing conspiracy to overthrow the government. The EOHR objected to the government’s rough treatment of the protesters, its violation of their right to freedom of assembly, its arbitrary detention of hundreds of workers, and other violations of human rights. Two members of the EOHR’s executive board, Amir Salem and Muhammad al-Sayyed Sa’id, were chosen to write the organization’s statement. That same night, in August 1989, they were taken into detention and beaten by interrogators from the state security intelligence police.

The detention of the two young activists, one a lawyer, the other a leading social scientist, had an electrifying impact on the EOHR. A member of the executive board at that time described it:

We began to feel our importance in the society. Suddenly, we started to receive hundreds of membership applications, and people started coming to us with complaints about violations. It opened our relations with other opposition political factions. We started to be approached by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Gama’at Islamiya (Islamic Groups).23

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The detention of the two young activists also brought the new organization global attention. The release of the two activists after a relatively short period of imprisonment and without further criminal prosecution was seen as a great victory for international pressure. ‘‘For the first time in my life I spent only fourteen days in prison,’’24 commented one of the detainees, reflecting on the impact of combined local and international pressure on the government. This apparent victory over the government stood in stark contrast to the directionless impotence of the traditional political opposition.25

The period 1989-93 was one of rapid growth and high achievement for the EOHR. Two basic problems bedeviled the development of the EOHR and the Egyptian human rights movement more broadly: relations between the human rights movement and preexisting domestic political forces; and relations between the movement and the international community, particularly with respect to the question of foreign funding. Both of these problems maybe traced back to the authoritarian character of the state apparatus in which the movement was developing.

In what was effectively a one-party system, competition between divergent ideological trends found expression in other, nonparliamentary venues. The EOHR became a new venue for political competition. Islamists, Communists, and Nasserists came to view the organization as something they had to control.

The EOHR leadership soon realized that politicization of the organization was a threat to its identity as an impartial human rights organiza- tion.26 The EOHR was established as an open membership organization, but as the organization grew in national prominence, so did the threat of domination by one or another organized political faction. A pattern of controlled open membership was established, an uneasy compromise that left the leadership open to accusations that it was engaging in political favoritism and excluding individuals it disagreed with.

For the Fourth General Assembly in May 1991 the leadership tried to contain political tensions by putting forward a list for the executive board with a quota of candidates from each political faction. This was not wholly successful because political factions worked behind the scenes to defeat nominees from other tendencies.27 Moreover, long-term activists excluded from the executive board’s list of candidates because of the need to accommodate the different factions became alienated from the organization.28

There were competing views about how the organization should move forward. The idea of turning the EOHR into a closed organization was considered. The two real options available were to greatly increase the membership of the organization or to continue with a controlled gradual expansion of the membership. The leadership increasingly favored

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the latter course because experience had taught them to be mistrustful of the depth of the adherence to human rights principles of some members in comparison to their commitment to political ideologies.29

These different views, which were debated at a special meeting of the organization in August 1993, became identified with competing factions within the organization. The left was identified with the mass mobilization concept, whereas the Nasserists and liberals supported limiting the organization’s expansion. Interfactional conflict continued until the climactic and notorious Fifth General Assembly in January 1994 at which the Nasserist faction secured a controlling majority on the executive board, but at the expense of alienating many longstanding members from other factions.

The EOHR’s early leaders had envisioned a human rights movement in which activists from across the political spectrum could participate but would not itself be a forum for political competition. Purposeful depoliticization, whereby activists would leave their partisan affiliation at the door when they came to an EOHR event, was the aspiration, perhaps even grounded in a charter of cooperation for human rights between the different factions. None of this was achievable in practice. The human rights movement in Egypt fragmented after 1993, and many former EOHR leaders either left human rights activity completely or formed their own private organizations. When the government stepped up its repression of the human rights movement in the late 1990s, the movement’s failure to develop strong roots in the society was exposed. The authorities faced little opposition to their characterization of the movement as an inauthentic, alien implant working against the interests of the nation. Former members of the EOHRjoined in the barrage of criticism against the movement in the media. The failure to build a broad local base for human rights through effective collaboration with existing political forces was a major impediment to human rights implementation in Egypt.

The domestic political isolation of the human rights movement has broadened the body of domestic opinion willing to engage in damaging public criticism of the movement. At the same time, Western material support for the movement, and Western criticism of the Egyptian government’s human rights record, however justified, has provoked a defensive reaction from political factions with a traditional antipathy toward Western policies, including leftists, nationalists, and Islamists. This combination of circumstances has left the movement with few friends.

The controversial decision to accept foreign funding was attributable to several factors. On the one hand, the EOHR was starved of resources,

constrained by its position of seemingly interminable legal limbo from

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establishing the organization with the size and reach it aspired to. Another pertinent factor was that funding was available for human rights organizations in Egypt. Moreover, there was a demand from Western-based human rights organizations, Western governments, and the international media for news about human rights conditions in Egypt. Egyptian human rights activists could best equip themselves to meet that demand by accepting the readily available foreign funds.

The presence of foreign funding changed the nature of the Egyptian human rights movement. What started out as a choice quickly became a dependency. Professionals staffed what had once been voluntary institutions. Repeatedly professional staff at the EOHR left the organization after a few years of experience for the richer prospect of being director of their own human rights organization. Most of these new organizations made no effort to create a base of local support through developing a membership core; instead they relied almost completely on foreign funding.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to say that the decision to base the local movement in Egypt on foreign funding was a mistake, and that certainly the dependency on foreign funding that has developed is evidence of that wrong turn. But the leaders of the Egyptian human rights movement in the early 1990s faced few choices. They could do nothing and allow the movement for which they had already sacrificed a good deal to wither from inattention and want of resources, or they could seize hold of the promised lifeline from the international donors.

The EOHR decided to accept foreign funding at a board meeting in November 1992. In the words of one board member, accepting foreign funding ‘‘prevented the organization from perishing under mounting financial difficulties.’’30 However, ‘‘in the political and intellectual climate prevalent in Egypt, agitation based on foreign funding was the easiest weapon for character assassination and the defamation of individuals and the organization itself.’’31 In 1993, three members of the executive board announced their resignations over the decision to accept foreign funding and became vociferous public critics of the human rights movement.

It was not the issue of foreign funding alone that raised objections within Egypt; the whole issue of international networking went against the grain of nationalist sensibilities. The EOHR leadership faced criticism for giving too much attention to international relations at the expense of domestic initiatives. Muhammad al-Sayyed Sa’id argued persuasively that this line of criticism was unfounded: ‘‘EOHR did not overlook any real opportunity for action within Egypt.’’ But he observed astutely:

What gave the impression of overriding emphasis on international networking was fundamentally the existence of greater room and potential for development in the external environment than what is factually possible in Egypt itself.32

There was a disequilibrium between the high receptivity of international bodies to various types of advocacy, campaigning, and promotion of human rights in Egypt on the one hand, and the low capacity of domestic structures in Egypt to channel this energy into constructive pressure for human rights change on the other. As a result, too often foreign pressure became counterproductive and was used to discredit the domestic human rights movement.

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