The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) works to protect freedom of expression in Egypt and the Arab World under the leadership of Gamal Eid.
Eid told Mada Masr that the recent period has been the worst in the history of human rights in Egypt and explained ANHRI’s strategy to defy registration under the new NGO law despite the state’s ultimatum. He maintains that compromise in order to get through difficult periods is not an option.
Mada Masr: Civil society in Egypt has experienced highs and lows. What, in your opinion, have been the most formative moments?
Gamal Eid: I think one of the most important moments was the state’s refusal to hold the founding meeting of the Arab Organization for Human Rights in 1983. This was akin to the Mubarak government announcing its position on civil society.
Then there was the iron and steel workers strike in 1989. It was a huge strike that resulted in the death of a number of workers. Civil society, represented by the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights — which was a credible organization at the time — and some activists, supported the strike. More than 600 workers were arrested, in addition to a large number of members of EOHR, including the late Mohamed al-Sayed Saeed, Hisham Mubarak and Amir Salem. Many were tortured, and some sustained long-term injuries.
Between 1992 and 1994, which witnessed a peak in religious violence from groups such as Al-Jihad and Al-Takfir wal Hijra, civil society took on an important role in rejecting violence from these groups and the state, maintaining unfair trials were not the solution and calling for the sovereignty of law. This made a name for civil society, and Mubarak even complained to the secretary general of Amnesty International about members of the Egypt office, which was being established at the time. This was a testament to the presence of civil society and its influence.
In 1994, there was another important development: Nasserists monopolized the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, resulting in the departure of other members, and the establishing of a number of new human rights organizations, some of which still have credibility today — including the Legal Aid Center for Human Rights, established by Hisham Mubarak, myself and others, and the Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, among others.
In 2000 and 2001, civil society worked on solidarity and aid campaigns for the Palestinian intifada. Shortly after the occupation of Iraq in 2003, civil society was more present in the streets alongside the Kefaya Movement and Freedom Now.
Several credible organizations were founded during this time, and we consider ourselves one of them. The state also started to follow the Jordanian, Moroccan and Yemeni examples, and helped organizations to start and become GONGOs (Government Organized Nongovernmental Organizations).
These are organizations that enhance the image of the state and play a decorative role. That same year, the National Council for Human Rights was founded.
The development of credible rights organizations simultaneously with the increase in GONGO organizations made us cooperate more. You couldn’t differentiate between the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, and the Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, for example, to the extent that we considered getting one headquarters. Each organization specialized in one issue and the rest supported it.
In 2010, just before the revolution, state fascism had increased dramatically and the activity of GONGO organizations had increased to the extent that they issued statements thanking Habib al-Adly for eradicating torture, while more credible organizations were saying torture had become systematic and there was no will for reform.
MM: Have all the gains made by civil society during the revolution been reversed in this latest crackdown?
GE: The current crackdown is the most violent since the start of civil society organizations in 1983. But the difference is that now we have a lot of support from wider society and people are starting to talk more about human rights, whether positively or negatively.
It appears as though our voices are quieter, but despite the media slander campaign and the state crackdown, people are turning to rights organizations for help and supporting them much more than before.
The movement has also become much wider than just the few organizations that were active before, and has embraced groups like, No to Military Trials of Civilians and Freedom for the Brave, in addition to other youth initiatives in Upper Egypt and the Delta.
There is another positive twist to the current crisis, which is that it has acted as a filter and shown who are real rights defenders and who are willing to ignore certain things and work with the state. Although we are suffering in this moment, we needed it to identify those who are complacent.
MM: Each organization has used a different tactic to deal with the current crackdown. What are the reasons behind ANHRI’s choice to continue working without registering under the new NGO law as per the ministry of solidarity’s instructions?
GE: First off, credible human rights organizations have been in talks and we agreed that it’s ok to use different tactics. When EIPR decided to register, we understood this and they also support those who refuse to register. We believe that our tactical differences don’t affect the unity of our goals.
The state shouldn’t have control over civil society. Our choice is in defense of the right to organize, regardless of the type of registration, in order to open the door for others to follow. We want to set an example that people can work without registering under an undemocratic law. Some countries don’t have laws that govern civil society or have basic laws, but this is a different case. The law is unfair, so we have the right to fight it.
We are registered, but not under the oppressive and unconstitutional law; we’re registered as a law firm under the law governing legal work, which gives lawyers at the cassation level the right to found legal networks that defend general freedoms, and that’s what I’m doing. We are registered under a more fair law and not the law mandated by State Security.
MM: In your assessment, is the current crisis similar to previous crackdowns or could it mean the end of civil society in Egypt, like some fear?
GE: It is the most violent wave, but the worst is yet to come. The state is now represented by the president alone, and government institutions have been acting independently. We have ended up feeling that state security wants to close us down, and the Ministry of Solidarity initially seemed to be following state security. But then it realized this would tarnish its image and backed down, leaving the intelligence bodies to handle it. Then a number of judges got upset and became involved. There is no unified political will, so one wing can decide to strike, while another prefers a political solution. We have to wait and see.
MM: The state and the media have been accusing NGOs of receiving foreign funds as proof that they follow foreign agendas. How do you respond to this accusation?
GE: Receiving funding in itself is not a problem, and the state knows this, but it uses it to challenge civil society. Its real aim is to close up the public sphere and create a pure military state. We are on our way towards this, but I hope we don’t get there. There are corrupt organizations and the state focuses on them to create a certain image. Funding is only a problem when it’s secret or its source is questionable.
During the peak of revolutionary zeal in 2011, we presented a proposal for an NGO law to the authorities that requires organizations to make their sources of funding and the amount of their funding and spending public, giving citizens the right to review this information and challenge it in court if necessary. We have committed to this voluntarily and the state wants people to forget this. Slander only happens in oppressive countries.
In 2011, the State Information Service issued a booklet documenting the role of civil society in the revolution. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces confiscated this publication, but we obtained a copy, as a testament to our role. The Interior Ministry also gave us an award in 2011. So if we are traitors, then the Interior Ministry is complacent with us and the state’s official media source has acknowledged our role.
MM: How do you strike a balance between continuing to do your work, which entails being critical of the state, and ensuring the survival of the organization during this difficult time?
GE: There are no compromises when it comes to human rights. Torture is a crime regardless of who does it; freedom of expression is guaranteed for those we agree with and those we disagree with. We either carry out our mission in its entirety, or stop working. And if they close us down and they don’t detain us, we will go back to working in the street and in syndicates like we used to before we founded our organizations. The space for work is always there, but if we work, we have to do it seriously. We will not compromise. In human rights, this is collusion.
The same reasons that organizations close are actually reasons for them to stay open. We can’t only work when the conditions are good and close when they deteriorate. The oppression is now stronger, and although it affects us, we are still able to help, so we should keep working. Society needs this service, so we have to provide it.
This is part of a series of interviews by Mada Masr with human rights workers in Egypt.