NO PLACE UNDER THE SUN FOR EGYPTIAN HUMAN RIGHTS AND POLITICAL ACTIVISTS

17 January 2017

 Mohamed Lotfy, Executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms

As we approach the sixth anniversary of the Egyptian uprising, of 25 January 2011, I contemplate what John Kennedy once said in a speech in 1962 : “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Although said in a different context in a different age, this quote would resound in the minds of anybody fearing breakdown of order and peace in Egypt. It has been proven in the Syrian context. Syria’s 2011 peaceful uprising turned into bloodbaths and civil war as their despot clang to power and quickly unleashed his military forces against peaceful revolutionaries, with the aim of crushing voices for freedoms and forcing the battlefield to become a “Despots vs Terrorists” war, a much preferred binary to the two battling sides, weakening the scenario of peaceful change to democracy.

Since July 2013, the Egyptian regime uses neighbor’s scenarios in its scaremongering discourse to dismiss peaceful political reforms rather than prevent such scenarios by progressing in the direction of democracy and respect of human rights. The regime turns the wisdom in the quote above upside down and thinks democracy, pluralism and human rights are too dangerous to the stability of the country. It feels more at home in the binary “Despots vs Terrorists”. It wants to eliminate any third option offered by forces that adopt peaceful resistance as a means for a democratic transformation.

In the last three years, government harassment and intimidation increased against vocal liberal groups and individuals peacefully engaged in public affairs, coming from a wide range of social sectors, whether they are human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, doctors, judges, dissident politicians, labor union leaders, activists or simple protesters.

The chapter on rights and freedoms in the amended Egyptian constitution of 2014 although progressive is in fact only ink on paper. Even constitutional articles that make promises of bigger government expenditures on health, eduction and housing are not being met. So not only the government confiscates civil and political freedoms, the masses of poor and middle class are seeing their standards of living diminishing.

And as an example of harassment against syndicates, in 2016, the head of the journalists syndicate, Yehya Qallash, and two of the syndicate board members, Khaled Elbalshy and Gamal Abdel Rehim, were referred to trial for temporarily hosting two journalists who had an arrest warrant against them in relation to calls for protests in April 2016. In the first time in its history the syndicate was raided by security forces to arrest the two journalists, Amr Badr and Mahmoud Elsaqqa, which unleashed uproar among the journalists’ community. The journalists syndicate board after an angry and historical general assembly at the raid, seemed in collusion course with the regime. They asked the President to apologize for the raid and to dismiss the Minister of Interior among other demands, but instead the regime referred the Head of the syndicate and the two board members to trial.

Similarly the President of the Central Auditing Agency, Hesham Genina, a judge, was referred to trial “for spreading false news” after being dismissed from his position by the President – according to a new decree allowing the President to dismiss the Agency’s President – after he made statements revealing colossal figures of corruption in the state apparatus, including security agencies.

While looking at photos of my wedding, which was over two years ago, I realized so many of my activists friends who attended it were later on arrested or tortured by the Egyptian government for their peaceful political or human rights activism. Ironically in one of the photos they stood by my wife and myself while we both held a piece of paper where it was written “Freedom for the Brave” in solidarity with other activists who were detained back then.

I was in a hurry to complete the wedding because I feared an imminent crackdown could take place and the human rights organization for which I work, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), could be closed, and feared too being arrested. Indeed at the time the Ministry of Social Solidarity had given an ultimatum ending October 2014 for unregistered organizations – especially those working in the field of human rights – to register under the repressive Associations Law of 2002 or otherwise face reprisal. But pressure from the UN Human Rights Council in its examination of Egypt’s human rights record and local and international campaigning allowed us to survive the ultimatum even though what came next was bitter too. Indeed pretty much all vocal and independent human rights groups in Egypt have to work while a Damocles sword is on their heads.

While arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances in secret detention places are on the rise, mainstream Egyptian human rights organizations are under investigation over foreign funding, in what is “national chapter” of the 2011 case which saw the IRI, NDI, NED and others’ staff members, put on trial and sentenced to prison for illegally operating in Egypt and receiving foreign funding. As part of this case, In 2016 and most recently in January 2017, Egyptian courts have ordered assets freezes against several human rights organizations and their directors including the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Hisham Mubarak Law Center, Center for Right to Education, Nazra for Feminist Studies, Center for Egyptian Women Legal Assistance, Arab Penal Reform Organization, and also froze the assets of prominent human rights defenders: Gamal Eid, founder of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, and Hossam Bahgat, founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. In addition in February 2016, the government issued a decision to close down the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture.

Two of my ECRF colleagues were detained in 2016, Engineer Ahmed Abdallah, co-founder and Board Director of ECRF, and Engineer Mina Thabet, Religious Minorities and Marginalized Groups Program Director at ECRF. Both were arrested at dawn from their homes by the police. The first was arrested on 25 April 2016 and the second on 19 May 2016 in the wave of arrests that the police carried out after calls for protests on 25 April 2016, known as “protest for the land”, against the government decision to redraw Egypt’s eastern borders handing over “Tiran and Sanafir” Islands to Saudi Arabia – the country that spent most energy and funds into aborting the “Arab Spring”, spreading extremism and exporting war into its neighbors’ territories to break the tidal wave of democratic change in the region. Ahmad Abdallah was released after 5 months detention while Mina Thabet was released after a one month preventive detention period.

Both Ahmad Abdallah and Mina Thabet were accused with dangerous charges based on a new counter-terrorism law including belonging to a terrorist group, incitement to overthrow the regime and attacking police stations, use of violence and threats to force the President to refrain from exercising his statutory powers and duties, using the Internet to promote ideas calling for committing terrorist acts, incitement for public gathering and protests, diffusion of false news. The message is clear, if you want to speak or express your opinion you must choose between being unequivocally supportive of the government or you are a terrorist or terrorist sympathizer. In January 2017, the case was closed for lack of evidence against the defendants.

We must always remember that we peaceful activists are the real enemies of a fascist state. We continue to resist as this is our responsibility towards future generations to secure a future where they can live in a free, democratic and prosperous Egypt.

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