Joe Stork is the deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Egypt has just lost one of its human rights pioneers, and Human Rights Watch has lost a dear friend, with the passing of Ahmed Seif Al Islam on August 27, 2014, following his hospitalization for heart ailments. Seif – as his friends in the movement usually addressed him – was a founder and long-time director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center (HMLC), named after another early human rights activist who died at a tragically young age.
Seif, a human rights lawyer, was on the legal defense team in numerous high-profile trials of human rights, labor, and more broadly political activists in the Hosni Mubarak years, but he was above all an activist himself. The HMLC was more often than not the coordinating center for planning peaceful demonstrations and then, invariably, for deploying lawyers to various detention centers in response to the usual mass arrests that followed such events. Their office on a six-floor walk-up in Bab al-Luq (the elevator more often than not was inoperable) was close to the main courthouse, the General Prosecutor’s office, and the Lawyers Syndicate, and was Cairo’s networking site par excellence, even with the advent of social media. This was the case for instance when security forces raided the HMLC offices on the morning of February 3, 2011, and arrested Seif along with 30 other lawyers, activists, and human rights defenders gathered there, including then-Human Rights Watch researcher Dan Williams.
Seif lived and breathed a deep commitment to human rights and peaceful political activism, though he did not hesitate to represent in court persons accused of political violence. Human rights was not something confined to his crowded office at the HMLC. His wife, Leila Soueif, teaches mathematics at Cairo University and was a leader in the March 9 movement of professors and others promoting academic freedom. His son and daughter, Alaa Abdel-Fattah and Sanaa Seif, have been in jail since June 11 and June 21 respectively for participating in peaceful protests despite the draconian assembly law decreed in November 2013.
I visited Seif in his home in May 2013; an inveterate cigarette smoker, he was recovering from a respiratory ailment at the time. Then-President Mohamed Morsy had appointed Seif to serve on a commission looking into arrests and military court trials of protesters under the 18-month reign of the Supreme Committee of the Armed Forces (SCAF) between the February 2011 departure of Hosni Mubarak and Morsy’s taking office on June 30, 2012, following his election a few weeks earlier. President Morsy accepted the commission’s recommendation of a general amnesty for all such convictions and dropping charges against those not yet brought to trial. Seif was a firm opponent of military court trials for any civilians. “We came under a lot of pressure from the Interior Ministry on the one hand and revolutionaries on the other, that this or that ‘thug’ should not be pardoned,” he told me then. “My view was that these people were not threats to society.”
In a conversation I had with Seif several years ago, in February 2007, he told me how he became engaged in human rights activism and lawyering:
“I didn’t start in human rights. I started as a Communist in an underground organization. I was tortured in 1983. Under torture I had to give a lot of information. I was turned into a wreck of a human being. A small example: each time I had a meal of torture, there was the sound of a bell. Since then, whenever I hear the sound of a bell my body shakes.”
“At that time I made a decision that it was no use to have political activity without dealing with human rights. I was sentenced to five years in prison. During this period I studied law. I left jail in 1989, November I think. By December I was a member of the Bar, and active in the Lawyers’ Syndicate. After two years as an apprentice, I started volunteer work on issues of freedoms and rights. The first time was during the Kafr al-Dawwar site of major textile industries strikes in 1994, and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd’s apostasy case.”
“I was not a member of any organization then. I wanted an organization to which I could fully commit myself. At that time also I didn’t have that much time to give. I started my career at the age of 40. It was necessary to focus on practicing law. What ended my hesitation was the trade union elections in 1996. I asked Hisham Mubarak, who had recently started the Center for Human Rights Legal Assistance, or CHRLA, ‘What do you intend to do regarding the elections?’ He said, ‘We don’t have anyone to take this responsibility.’ He told me I could volunteer.”
“The elections were over in November 1996. By then I was full time. This didn’t just open the door to work with labor unions. It opened constitutional cases. Those are among the most important things with which HMLC deals. I’ve been part of HMLC from the beginning. Among its principle goals is to challenge the government’s efforts to control human rights groups.”
Our 2007 conversation ended with Seif’s reflections on the state of human rights activism in Egypt at that time.
“Our greatest accomplishment is that rights issues are part of the domestic agenda, and in the state, in their discourse, in academic research, in the media, and the legal profession. We managed to create a social consensus against torture. That didn’t exist 10 years ago. The Communists would say secretly, ‘It doesn’t matter if Islamists are tortured.’ And the Islamists would say, ‘Why not torture communists?’ In the last five years you don’t hear this from anyone. The government created the National Council for Human Rights – responding to external pressures, for cosmetic purposes, but also responding to the situation in the country. The acceptance of several sectors of the Egyptian society to have foreign monitoring of elections, or monitoring by rights groups, this is now a demand of most political currents. The quantity of complaints that citizens make to rights groups, I don’t think the groups suffer from any lack of work! All organizations, no matter how new, have a problem of excessive expectations in terms of their capacity. This is despite all the counter-propaganda the government puts out with the help of others – like underground Communist organizations that see us as some kind of American clone. They are very dear friends, whom I also defend of course. And when I go to defend them, they don’t object.”
I asked Seif in 2007 about his thoughts on the fact that the growth of human rights activism coincided, roughly, with the ascendancy of political Islam.
“I am the wrong person to answer this question. My father was a former Muslim Brother. The first person to defend us when we were tortured in 1983 was a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated lawyer. While Al Ahali, the leftist-secularist Tagammu` newspaper, refused to publish anything about our case! This taught me a lesson – that torture is something that must concern all of us no matter who is the victim. I thank my lawyer for this lesson. He probably doesn’t know how he changed me.”
“Within the Islamist groups, it is possible to find activists who see things the way we do regarding human rights, because they suffer a lot from violations. You find problems when it comes to rights that are sensitive – for example, freedom of belief. But we work with everybody: we defend Islamists the same way we defend Communists. At the same time we defend homosexuals, or people accused of insulting religion. So we don’t get attacked by the Islamists. We are playing a principled role in so many varied cases. People interested in these cases know the scope of what we are doing. This makes us acceptable. ‘OK, they’re crazy,’ they say about us. ‘Fine!’”
The death of Ahmad Seif now, when Egypt needs a strong human rights movement perhaps more than ever, comes at a great loss to his colleagues and co-defenders in Egypt and beyond. It is a terrible time not to have Seif’s counsel, because the best of Egypt today owes so much to Seif’s exemplary life and achievements.