Ragia Omran: Tirelessly pursuing human rights with one foot in corporate law

In December, lawyer Ragia Omran was one of 15 rights defenders from around the world to receive the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law. She was also awarded the Robert F. Kennedy award for human rights in 2013.

At the award ceremony for the Franco-German Prize, held at the German Embassy in Cairo, a feisty Omran said, “Some people speak about the hypocritical nature of politics, but I don’t use such language. I am a pragmatic person, but it is not pragmatic to sell arms to warring factions in countries mired in terrible conflicts where children are dying and then support a human rights investigation at the same time. It is counterproductive to give a human rights award but be selective about rights, to talk the talk, but not walk the walk.”

Omran, who comes from an affluent background, has been entrenched in the human rights movement in Egypt for two decades, mostly as a volunteer, while simultaneously maintaining a practice in corporate law. Mada Masr sat with her for an hour as she reflected on these different aspects of her life.

Mada Masr: You have a career in corporate law, while being extremely engaged in human rights. How did this happen?

Ragia Omran: I went to high school in Kuwait and I always knew that I wanted to be a lawyer. Then, I got accepted at Bryn Mawr college, which is one of the top Seven Sisters schools. It’s a women’s college, and very prestigious. Of course, my mother did not want me to go to the United States, unlike my father. So the deal was that I would go to the US, but I would do my junior year at the American University in Cairo (AUC). I think that year at AUC, from 1992-93, made it easier for me to come back to Egypt, work and blend in.

The turning point for me was the summer of the International Conference for Population and Development (ICPD) in Egypt in 1994. I wanted to get involved, so I interned with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and went to the ICPD, and through that I got to know people from civil society.

At this point, I wanted to work in a law firm, to be a paralegal and go back to the US to study more. But I was told that Aziza Hussein was looking for an assistant. I didn’t even know who she was, but I went and met her and she hired me. She was an amazing woman. Through her, I got to know Marie Asaad and a working group campaigning against female circumcision, where I met Aida Seif al-Dawla and Amal Abdel Hadi, and they got me into the New Woman Foundation. That was the year, in 1995, when the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing was held and I was one of a few people from the foundation chosen to go as part of an NGO forum. We did the first study ever on violence against women, both for the organization and Egypt. Beijing was an amazing experience, but we were criticized by Egypt’s official delegation. I was very young, 22, or something.

After that I got to know lawyers Ahmed Seif al-Islam, Hisham Mubarak and the Nadeem family, who the New Woman Foundation shared an office with in the early 1990s.

MM: What made you move from women’s rights to human rights more broadly?

RO: I decided to attend law school, so I left my job with Aziza Hussein. My first year was a major culture shock, but I kept attending packed classes and having to bring my own chair. After my second year, I wanted to work in a law firm. I met Mona Zulficar and she told me to come and work with her at the Shalakany firm. All that time I was still involved with the New Woman Foundation.  

I graduated from law school and continued working with Shalakany, where I met Marwa Farouk. Shortly after the Kefaya movement began in 2004, Farouk was arrested from the 2005 Cairo International Book Fair and the firm stood behind her. After that, whenever someone was arrested, we would leave the office to help them. Activism was never an issue. It was okay, as long as we also did our work.

I was very invested from the beginning and used to go to the Hisham Mubarak law center. Seif al-Islam was mentoring young lawyers then. I attended interrogations, went to State Security Prosecution and prisons. It was all very new to me and I learnt so much. I made a decision not to work for any one organization, but to be involved in the community and civil society in general. I don’t want to make money from civil society work, not because I have a problem with it, but because I want to have a career as a  corporate lawyer and do this work as a volunteer.  

I still defend women’s rights and when I began prison visits, I started with women like Esraa Abdel Fattah and Rasha Azab. I think after the January 25 revolution, it was no longer OK to focus on women’s rights solely, with all the arrests and military trials that were taking place.

MM: Are you able to balance your corporate work and your human rights work, or do you sometimes feel one is taking priority over the other?

RO: I left the Shalakany law firm just before the revolution because I was burnt out and needed a break. I also wanted to start my own firm. Then the revolution erupted. Meanwhile, Mohamed ElBaradei came to Egypt and I attended all events related to his presidential campaign. He is a family friend; we used to spend the summers with his children on the north coast, so I was close to his campaign for a number of reasons.

Two years later, I decided to go back to work because I had no money. So I joined Zaki Hashem, which is another law firm, and told them I wanted to work while still focusing on human rights, which they were happy with, and we agreed on a flexible arrangement.

Sometimes it gets stressful and I have to say no. For example, I have been unable to do several prison visits because of my corporate work. I work mainly on banking and finance cases, where timing is critical.

MM: How are you perceived in your corporate law firm, given your focus on human rights?

RO: Many of my colleagues are supportive, and one or two have told me they also want to work in human rights. I think people respect me and even though we may have different political ideas, I am always discussing things with them.

MM: How do more senior members of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), which you have been part of since 2013, perceive you?

RO: Sometimes I get very angry and I can be brash and outspoken. They are used to me by now, but of course they still get shocked and say I shouldn’t act in this way. I have objected strongly to things like not being able to enter Aqrab Prison during the council’s official visit. Maybe sometimes I should be a bit less fiery, but I think that this was my role in the council.

MM: Have you faced any pressure to resign from the NCHR?

RO: All the time. The state wanted to see me and others leave the council and put continual pressure on us in this regard.

MM: How is working in a largely male-dominated environment of human rights lawyers, prosecutors and judges?

RO: Since I first began to attend interrogations with the late Seif al-Islam and Sayed Fathy, I haven’t experienced any discrimination. We pulled all-nighters in police stations and we did everything together.

Up until 2010, all my experience was from attending interrogations at the State Security Prosecution or regular prosecution, and from going to visit people in prisons. But after that, as I began to deal with military courts and regular cases, I also had to start dealing with judges. They don’t understand me. I look very different from what they’re used to. A lot of the time, when I enter courts, they think I’m a journalist. They don’t expect me to be a lawyer and I get very offended and argue with them.

I had an experience with notorious Judge Nagy Shehata, who yelled at me during the Al Jazeera trial, saying, “Miss, should I focus on the session or on you coming and going like that?” He then referred me to investigation during the Cabinet Clashes trial and I thought he would accuse me of disrupting the session, but he accused me of insulting the judge. This is dangerous and could lead to imprisonment. But there were lawyers with me in the session who gave witness accounts of what happened, saying that I didn’t insult the judge. The investigation was shelved in the end.

LA: Which cases have affected you most. What about when it got particularly personal?

RO: The Abbasseya military trial, which included over 300 defendants, most of them Salafi followers of  [Preacher] Hazem Abu Ismail. When they started arresting people before referring them to the military prosecution, I attended their interrogations, and this was when the harshest incident took place. One of the defendants refused to let me attend as he didn’t want to let a woman in. I felt insulted, because we were volunteering while no one else was moving to defend them. Even Salafi lawyers only came once or twice, but we persisted and we visited them in jail. All of them were tortured during the first few sessions. It was terrible. I felt sorry for them, because they were jailed for political reasons, and the people who they supported didn’t support them back. I think they really appreciated that we stood by them until they were released. This affected me a lot.

Of course there were also the Mohamed Mahmoud and Cabinet clashes cases. Also the 2012 Presidential Palace case. I attended the protest, after which people began a sit in. After I left, I got news that my friends had been taken by Muslim Brotherhood members and beaten. So we went to the police station and filed a lawsuit against the Brotherhood leadership, and then went to the prosecution. We continued with the case as civilian claimants amid some criticism, because the case was referred to trial right after June 30. Brotherhood members were posited as victims during this period as a result of their political stance, making it difficult to criticize them. But I still think this was the first anti-Brotherhood action that wasn’t just political. We saw evidence of people being tortured and beaten.

The first time I attended an autopsy was after Shaimaa al-Sabbagh’s death and that too was very hard. Her family asked the NCHR to take action according to Article 99 of the Constitution, which stipulates that the council can support civil actions. When the 15-year-sentence was announced, it was a significant moment for all of us. And this is one of the things I was happy to be part of in my role with the council, which subsequently became involved in six civil actions concerning deaths caused by police or torture after this case.

MM: How do you protect yourself when it gets particularly intense?

RO: I don’t give up easily. I’m too committed to Egypt. I also lead a double life. Before I was involved with all of this, I had other friends who have nothing to do with any of this world. So I still maintain a separate social life that I can go to. Sometimes I get tired, and I may not be able to pick up the phone, but I can never really switch off completely.

I also have many people who support me in what I do behind the scenes and they are like my family now, such as the Front for the Defense of Protesters. I’m really the person that I am because of these people, because no one can do it all alone.

MM: What drives you to work as a lawyer and in human rights?

RO: The thing that touches me most is when I’m walking in the street or in court and someone stops me and says, “Miss Ragia, don’t you remember me? You defended me.” I don’t remember everyone anymore. Before the revolution we knew who the people we defended were because they were always the same, now it is different. This is the best kind of satisfaction and that’s why I wanted to become a lawyer. I want to use the law to help everyone.


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