Whilst the human rights movement has traditionally focussed on exposing police violations, fighting for economic justice and raising the ceiling for freedom of expression, a battle for personal rights has also emerged as a priority, especially in the fields of religious and sexual rights. This battle involves confrontation with both state and society.
In this interview, Amr Ezzat, researcher and officer for the “Freedom of Religion and Belief Program” at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), talks about battling for personal freedoms.
Mada Masr: How has the struggle for personal rights been rendered more challenging as it interfaces with both state and society?
Amr Ezzat: We face this problem in many of our cases, particularly those related to LGBT rights, although rights organizations can decide whether or not to work on these issues and who to raise them with. For example, EIPR published a comprehensive study about sexual and reproductive rights in English, which limited the debate about this particular piece, due to some of the ideas in it. The ceiling is low for those working in the field of gender and sexual rights, and much of the debate is often focussed on negotiations with the National Council for Women and official state organizations.
We started an ambitious campaign after the case involving Alber Saber case — an Egyptian atheist who was accused of contempt of the Islamic religion. Our argument was that such cases should not be dealt with legally, as they concern freedom of expression, and that most belief systems are often critical of others. However, the campaign did garner fairly broad attention and achieved limited success. Saber was released and permitted to travel. The campaign involved Egyptian and international rights organizations, volunteers and friends, and several articles and blogs ran concurrent debates about freedom of belief.
Effecting change in wider society is difficult and is a slow process, but it is also restricted by the capacities of rights organizations. In this case we had thirty or so volunteers and a specific blog and database. I also wrote two articles in Al-Masry Al-Youm, one of which was titled, “Why don’t we simply admit that we don’t like freedom of faith,” and it was one of the most read articles at the time, stirring a lot of debate. However, the situation remains almost the same on a wider scale, and legal cases against religious minorities continue.
MM: Which is more difficult, battling state or society?
AE: The two fronts are very closely intertwined. The legal context surrounding many of the freedoms cases is vague. For example, concerning issues of religious freedom, the law enables judges and police to act according to their own personal biases. One prosecutor might release the accused, while another mistreats him or her. Sometimes the police act as a state institution, and at others they reflect the views of wider society.
Concerning LGBT issues, working with society is often more challenging. We can discuss specific cases with the state concerning procedures for investigations, detentions and trials, and sometimes progress is made if there are judges or members of the prosecution who are willing. But this varies from one case to the next, and the response of the state is often contingent on that of society.
Societal pressure often pushes the state to intervene. For example, an accusation that is raised publicly and leads to a number of people beating a person, or dragging him or her to the police station. This is a common occurrence — it is rare that a member of the public calmly files a report in such cases.
MM: Do popularly led campaigns and independent movements have more freedom than human rights organizations?
AE: Generally, organizations have access to more information, materials and human resources than popular campaigns.
Organizations often focus on policies and legislation, whereas popular campaigns are often motivated by personal interest. This can be a positive aspect, as those who lead such campaigns often have first hand experience of the problems, unlike organizations with multiple stakeholders and priorities. Those directly involved in campaigns create a high degree of interaction with society around them.
MM: Advocating for certain personal rights is sometimes critiqued for not being culturally sensitive, or being born out of a western notion of rights that is not compatible with Egyptian social norms? What are your thoughts on this?
AE: In many cases, rights organizations intervene in confrontations to support one party in society against another that is oppressing it. Usually the oppressing party is in the majority, or is the more powerful, the larger authority or the older one. There is often a battle over ideas, values, customs and traditions. Rights advocates generally work with minorities, the weaker parties in society.
The need to protect minority groups in society from majority groups and the powerful is universal, although the modern legal frameworks for such principles were initiated in the West, as well as critiques of them.
I tend to talk about myself in my articles instead of universal values. I always ask, “Why can’t we all be entitled to the same degree of freedom?”
Many of the organization’s points of reference come from rights covenants that are produced by state parties, with amendments and addendums. We should question them, but not necessarily their origins.
MM: How has confrontation affected the cases you’ve worked on? Is there a fear that groups, individuals or the state will become fiercer regarding certain issues if you draw attention to them?
AE: It is important to mention that most of these organizations are not foreign. The majority of those who work in Egyptian rights organizations are Egyptian activists, who care about the issues they’re working on. Most work hard to ensure minorities feel that they have allies.
State violence is not the result of rights work. For example, Shia Egyptians started to express themselves more publicly after the revolution, without the intervention of the rights movement. Much of the provocation occurred when the movement highlighted this fight. Now we are fighting a losing battle, but at the very least we can document cases that might be used in the future.
EIPR set a very good example of this. Before the revolution, we amassed a wealth of knowledge about sectarianism, which pushed the presidency to request a discussion of cases related to sectarian violence.
MM: Many have criticized the “rights-based” approach to the revolution. Some maintain that people should form parties that are able to negotiate for such rights. What do you consider to be the best approach?
AE: There is another critique from an Islamic or conservative perspective that is interested in maintaining some of the current power structures. This perspective proposes an Islamic caliphate, requiring the hegemony of the majority. Such trends also exist in the West, where there are elements calling for the rescinding of rights for Muslims.
Another issue is the state’s defense of its own hypocritical logic. The government receives grants to improve democratic conditions, for example, and ratifies international covenants, claiming that the modern state is built on the rule of law with full respect for human rights.
The legal structure in modern states, including Egypt, prevents the majority from dictating personal rights and freedoms. When a law legislated by an elected majority conflicts with the rights in the constitution, a constitutional court should rule the law unconstitutional. The democratic balance, in this instance, does not hinge on a majority’s support for freedoms.
This requires the presence of a certain elite that is not affected by the whims of the majority from the beginning. An elite that is capable of founding a state based on rights and freedoms, even if the present culture suffers from oppression and prejudice. However, if the elite, including the judges of the constitutional court, are originally against public freedoms, this can create a huge crisis. This is partly the situation in Egypt, although the logic in every battle is different. The state, because it imposes its control on education and official media, plays a role in shaping societal values. At other times, they are shaped by society itself. There are always overlaps.
MM: How effective is the rights movement in Egypt and what is this dependant on?
AE: The effectiveness of the rights movement is down to the engagement of its members.
I used to write and take part in campaigns about freedom of belief. My work at EIPR is, to a degree, a result of this participation. A large part of my current work agenda was not originally part of rights work in Egypt. No other organizations work on Islamic foundations, for instance.
We strive for dialogue with, and to present recommendations to, official religious establishments. This has exposed many Imams and Al-Azhar University students to laws and regulations. Aside from the practical gains, this has also created a body of research and exposed the lack of knowledge of certain members of the Ministry of Endowments regarding regulations. This is because they were never subject to debate. One employee, for example, did not know that the stipulation for judicial arrest of ministry employees had existed since the nineties. It is this lack of knowledge within religious institutions that often leads Islamists to think the establishment is operating in their favor.
It is not possible to study the rights movement without considering transparency. Many workers and volunteers are interested in opening up lines of communication.
Civil society work was heavily restricted to activists, lawyers and academic researchers in the nineties, who mostly worked on monitoring, documentation and litigation. The crisis of civil society we are experiencing now is not the result of legislation, as laws have always been controversial. Civil society has been suppressed along with the democratic current.
Some suggest that rights organizations should consequently isolate themselves and specialize only in maintaining a dialogue with the state, but we must be part of what is happening in society, and this is EIPR’s stance. We have offices that are open for fieldwork, and we conduct our work in partnership with community groups. It is important that we continue to communicate with others.
This is part of a series of interviews by Mada Masr with human rights workers in Egypt.