“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Art. 3 recites.
This appears not to be the case in today’s Egypt, where reinforced security measures have increasingly been constricting Egyptian citizens’ life, liberty and security in the last years.
The government’s reaction to the wave of protests on September 20th, 2019 does not but confirm the presence of a policy of total repression under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule.
Equally, the measures adopted to prevent any popular mobilization on the occasion of the anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution on January 25th, 2020 is highly indicative of the imposition of a state of total fear in the country.
A closer look into some everyday life stories of Egyptians cannot leave us indifferent.
Rather, it signals a worrying oppression leading to a deterioration, if not complete neglect, of human rights under what Project on the Middle East Democracy (POMED)’s Deputy Director for Policy, Andrew Miller, has called “the most repressive government in modern Egyptian history”.
Among the several stories that could clearly illustrate this scenario, we chose to present in a series of episodes the example of Hossam, who prefers to remain anonymous for security reasons. His vicissitudes since September 2019 stimulate a number of reflections on the current situation in a country that strongly prioritizes its national security but where citizens can hardly feel secure.
Episode 3 – Searching for justice: lawyers and human rights organizations at work
Let us go back to the tense moments following Hossam’s disappearance.
Suddenly, his family and friends found themselves into an unprecedented situation that required careful consideration. What were the best steps to take? Which were the most suitable people to reach out? Which organizations could help following his case? Who could be trusted?
With all these questions in mind and no time to waste, Hossam’s beloved ones quickly mobilized in his desperate search.
In reason of the distressing events of those days, major local human rights organizations were extremely responsive. Their Facebook pages were filled with documents explaining the most recommended procedures. Similar information were circulating through WhatsApp accompanied with phone numbers of trustworthy lawyers. A network of knowledgeable people were mobilizing to offer as much help as possible. Despite the unfavorable context, people falling into the unfortunate possibility of knowing anyone victim of enforced disappearance were not alone.
Few days after going to the local police station, Hossam’s family received the confirmation of what they had suspected from the very beginning. Hossam’s name appeared in the official list of people taken by the National Security near Tahrir Square on Saturday.
From that moment, the regular life of a tranquil family living in the Cairo countryside was turned ups and down. They had no choice but to start reach out lawyers, human rights organizations, local authorities in an attempt to bring Hossam safe back home.
The Egyptian fight against terrorism in court
After Al-Sisi takeover in 2013, fighting terrorism has represented the focal point in the official state discourse, progressively used after 2015 and further reinforced after last September protests. A comparative observation of the most recurrent charges suggests the arbitrary nature of legal justifications for the most recent detentions.
In addition to the accusation of “joining terrorist groups”, the charges of “spreading false news”, “misuse of social media” and “undermining national security” are persistently used. Under these very broad statements, it is evident that anyone could easily fall into the category of people to detain, as it was the case for Hossam.
As reported by Amnesty international in the weeks following the outbreak of protests, “The protesters and those arrested –who all face terrorism-related charges- have an extremely diverse range of age, socio-economic, gender and religious backgrounds, including non-political backgrounds”.
Human rights organizations have been pursuing several paths to review the penal code in order to bring more clarity to the reasons for detention in Egypt.
On December 14th and 15th, the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) called for “the need to update and activate amendments”, especially with regards to pre-trial detention, but in vain. Rather, during the first months of 2020, the government proposed new legislative amendments to further toughen what human rights groups call the “draconian” 2015 anti-terrorism law. In fact, On February 10th, Egyptian parliament approved amendments to the anti-terrorism law, broadening the definition of terrorist activities and terrorist financing as well as imposing harsher sentences for terrorism-related crimes.
Lawyers and human rights organization at work: a strenuous struggle
In a country where the rule of law seems a mere abstraction, lawyers and human rights organizations could naturally be deluded. Nonetheless, many believers in the need for justice do not give up.
Remarkably, the weeks following the wave of arrests saw a well-orchestrated coordination of lawyers, human rights organizations, journalists, academics and activists denouncing that reality.
Numerous statements bringing light to the alarming application of law in Egypt were released. In October, NCHR called the last wave of arrest of people on the street unconstitutional. As a reaction, security forces mobilized all media outlets to criticize the council and his President, Mohamed Fayek, declaring that “he lacks knowledge of his own country’s laws”.
Although recurring to legal instruments to bring justice has proved to be extremely challenging, several lawyers continued their valorous struggle.
They were incessantly monitoring the situation, releasing essential information and taking action. Most importantly, they have put themselves at complete disposal of the community in need, sacrificing vital hours of sleep and any kind of personal life. A look into the Twitter and Facebook accounts of major lawyers reveals weeks of uninterrupted work, with posts published every hour, day and night.
Not only has that urgent scenario put a serious strain on lawyers’ psychological health, but it has also implied dangers for their safety.
Generally, an Egyptian lawyer defending sensitive causes can put his or her own life at risk. Remarkably, Ibrahim Metlawy, a lawyer working on the case of Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni murdered in Egypt during his field research, was arrested, detained and tortured in September 2017.
Last September scenario further proved the current criminalization of human rights. Not only detention and torture, but also harassment and threats are recurrently adopted to discourage this activity. Among others, Human right lawyer and executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) Gamal Eid was assaulted by a dozen of armed men who he suspected were police officers as reported by BBC on December 30th, 2019.
In their report “Human rights behind bars in Egypt”, EuroMed Rights monitors current human right defenders at risk showing the innumerous faces of those who have been targeted. In addition to detention, the Egyptian state frequently recurs to police probation, travel ban, asset freeze.
Lawyers and human rights defenders represent a vital component of the Egyptian community in search for justice. With their knowledge, strenuous work and unstoppable commitment, they have been assisting thousands of people in their journey through detention, while putting themselves at risk.
However, people’s confidence in the power of law to bring justice in cases of arbitrary detention has been challenged to the point of exhaustion. Without doubt, what remains in the mind of victims of injustice is the need of change while continuing “wrestling with the darkness” (نصارع الظلام) as framed by Egyptian revolutionary musician and poet Ali Talibab.
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