Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 October 2003
Issue No. 661
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Labib Moawad:

Keeper of secrets

He put his case judiciously

Profile by Gamal Nkrumah


photos: Ayman Ibrahim


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Moawad today is renowned for being the lawyer of performing artists -- singers, actors and actresses. His special relationship with performing artists began when he befriended the late Mohamed Abdel-Wahab
Labib Moawad knows a thing or two about timing. He reckons that the time is ripe for Egypt to have a ministry of human rights. "The Interim Governing Council in occupied Iraq deemed it important to establish a fully-fledged ministry for human rights. And, we in free Egypt do not have a ministry of human rights. We are a bit behind the times and it is a national disgrace."

He sits with his chin in his hands, brows raised. Moawad is encouraged by the establishment of the National Council for Human Rights. He is especially heartened by Gamal Mubarak's foresight in introducing the subject in his capacity as the head of the ruling National Democratic Party's Policy Secretariat.

"I take my hat off to him for the way he did it. It was a courageous move. His proposal was passed in parliament but I want more. I want to advance this line of thinking further. I strongly believe that it is time that Egypt, a trendsetter in the region and a political heavyweight, worked harder on establishing a ministry for human rights. It is about time that we had such a ministry."

He believes that respect for the sanctity of human rights is an idea that must take root in Egypt if the country is to take its proper place among the nations of the world.

As one of Egypt's leading lawyers he is currently involved in international arbitration, both in Egypt and abroad. His pet subject at the moment is intellectual property rights. "I was always interested in copyright law -- the rights of singers, musicians and other performing artists. Intellectual property rights is an extension of the concept of the old copyright laws."

He is also very keen on human rights: the rights of women, of religious minorities, of performing artists, of disadvantaged groups.

Born and raised in the Delta town of Tanta, Moawad remains proud of his provincial roots. A bustling city, Tanta in the 1930s was "virtually the capital of the Delta. It had all the features of a capital city: a theatre, a sporting club, a library and a court of law". The last, it would seem, particularly impressed him, though the library too was a favorite haunt.

The library, he says, was his secret hideout. He spent the happiest days of his childhood scouring its shelves for books on legal matters. And by the age of eight he was already frequenting courthouses.

As a child Moawad was something of a bookworm. He read voraciously, much to the consternation of his parents. His grandmother, "an illiterate but highly intelligent woman", stopped him and asked him where he was. "I was at the library. I borrowed some books," he answered sheepishly. "Take this money and buy a few books. You can keep the books at home for good and won't have to return them to the library," she said.

But his parents were not as supportive as his grandmother of his reading habit. They felt that he read far too much and that is was not good for his health. Moawad hails from a family of distinguished medical practitioners and his parents hoped that he would follow in the footsteps of his uncles and brothers. They were disappointed when he insisted that he wanted to become a lawyer. In Egypt the legal profession does not have the same resonance or prestige it does in some Western countries though this was not always the case. In the past the legal profession was a stepping stone to the world of politics. Ministers often had a legal background and the law was the surest path to a successful ministerial position.

Law is a most misunderstood vocation, says Moawad. In the past the legal profession was a very prestigious one, though these days lawyers are often branded as liars and crooks.

Moawad is headstrong and followed his own daydreams with persistence. He dreamed of being a lawyer, in sombre billowing black robes, gesticulating dramatically in court, eloquently delivering a life-saving speech and making an impact on his audience. And if his parents were not exactly enthused they must have seen in their youngest son qualities that convinced them that he would succeed in the life he chose. Moawad has never lost a case.

How does he do it?

Running the show is an absolute necessity. His assistants are empowered to act on his behalf only in less weighty matters.

Moawad is renowned for his wit in the courtroom. He has a reputation of being an irascible, difficult man. Diminutive and balding, he does not cut a particularly dashing figure though he more than makes up for his physical shortcomings by his commanding voice, self-confidence and strong personality.

He cannot remember any of his childhood friends. His favourite books were his best friends. A loner at heart, he had no time for girlfriends as a teenager. He married in the traditional way.

"My wife's parents were my clients. They won their case and I won their daughter."

A devout Coptic Christian, she is "devoted to much fasting and prayer", he chuckles. Superficial good looks never really interested him. "What attracts me is the beauty of the mind," he says.

He enrolled at the University of Alexandria's Faculty of Law. "I wanted to study in Alexandria, which at the time was a cosmopolitan city with many foreign firms. I wanted to polish up my French and English. Alexandria, and not Cairo, was the place to be at the time," he muses.

Moawad was inspired by the example of Chaeremon, who had a speech defect -- he lisped. Yet he was determined to improve his oratory skills. He spoke to the waves. The waves were his audience. He was an accomplished professional speaker and speech-writer. In Alexandria, facing the waters of the Mediterranean, Moawad re-enacted Chaeremon's conversations with the waves.

"A man can confer the greatest of benefits by a right use of [rhetoric], and inflict the greatest of injuries by using [it] wrongly," Aristotle says in On Rhetoric. It was a lesson Moawad would take to heart.

Moawad, always discreet and sympathetic, never gives much information away about subjects considered personal or private. He strongly believes the legal profession should be discreet in what it does.

Alexandria, with its Graeco-Roman heritage, was the ideal place to read the classics. After a day at college he would roam the city in search of libraries. He taught himself French and English.

Following his graduation Moawad moved to Cairo. Again his parents objected. They wanted him to practice law in his hometown, Tanta. He insisted on going to Cairo, even though he had no family or friends there. He stayed at different pensions in downtown Cairo. He spent his evenings at the Café Riche.

His life was set on an irrevocable course. He never turned back.

It was in those early days that he became embroiled in a strange case of espionage which implicated a Greek waiter. The waiter worked in Groppi and was accused of attempting to assassinate the President Nasser. The Israelis had apparently tried to inveigle him into their service. They allegedly urged him to poison Nasser. The Israelis sent him messages written in invisible ink. The letters had fallen into Egyptian state security hands.

Messages can be encoded for greater secrecy, but Moawad thought it odd that Israeli intelligence would use such a primitive and outdated medium as invisible ink. Spies then used microfilm.

Moawad thought there was jiggery-pokery going on in Groppi. He carefully investigated the allegations. The Greek waiter was branded an Israeli spy. The media mounted a puerile campaign against him.

The Greek waiter was behind bars. Moawad turned on the prosecutors. He began to assail them with every kind of invective he could think of. He left no stone unturned in his quest for justice, for the truth.

Moawad denies resorting to the Jesuitical methods of some of the country's savvy lawyers. A security officer was brought in for questioning. "I read the incriminating letters," he said. "Isn't it a bit too obvious," Moawad countered. "The Israelis would use more sophisticated methods." Moawad instinctively knew that the Israelis were using the Greek waiter as a red herring.

Sure enough Nasser pardoned the Greek waiter, who was released from jail and deported. He would otherwise have been executed. Moawad never got involved in an espionage case again.

Moawad today is renowned for being the lawyer of performing artists -- singers, actors and actresses. His special relationship with performing artists began when he befriended the late Mohamed Abdel-Wahab.

"Abdel-Wahab and I struck up a friendship immediately. We both agreed that the word is the most powerful means of communication. We were in touch on a daily basis. If I didn't meet him we would chat on the phone," Moawad remembers.

"He liked to keep in touch with his close friends. Abdel-Wahab was a very special person. A well-read and cultured thinker, a sensitive artist who always had something insightful to say."

They had more in common than first meets the eye. A lawyer is a little like an actor, a performing artist, though it is the courthouse that is his stage.

First Abdel-Wahab and then a string of performing artists followed. They all wanted to protect their rights and Moawad wanted to protect the rights of his friends in showbusiness. They in turn confided in him a great deal.

It was not unusual for Moawad's celebrity friends to be involved in litigation against journalists. He remembers how Nadia Lotfy once brought an action for libel against a critic who she claimed had published an article that wrongly damaged her reputation. I'm taking legal action, the angry actress told Moawad.

"She is a very sensitive and loving woman, and she was deeply hurt by the critic's allegation. She filed a lawsuit. She came to me for help and we were about to win the case when suddenly she changed her mind. She phoned and urged me to drop all charges. The actress's voice dropped to a lower, more confidential pitch. 'I'm telling you this in the strictest confidence,' she said. The critic, she said, was suffering from a heart condition and she feared that her action might kill him."

Some actresses, like the late Soad Hosni, wanted to know the minutiae of every contract they signed. Others, like the singer-actress Shadia, preferred to leave everything to the lawyer. Whatever the preferences of the client, Moawad prides himself on always acting with prudence. He considers talking about the confidences of his friends and clients a serious breach of trust. Other unscrupulous lawyers in his position might have exploited different situations. He cultivated the trust and friendship of the stars and they in turn entrusted their welfare to him. He is characteristically prudish about the private affairs of actors and actresses: "In my experience litigants nearly always deceive their solicitors. Actors and actresses don't."

One of his more celebrated cases concerned the film Al-Kheit Al-Rafii, starring Faten Hamama, which was banned by a judge on the recommendation of the censors following the first day of its screening at Metro Palace cinema. Moawad was told that the judge's decision was final and no correspondence could be entered into.

Moawad was in Alexandria when the judgement was made. He rushed back to Cairo and headed straight for the judge's home. It was a desperate and unconventional measure. He took with him the producer Ramses Naguib and the scriptwriter Ihsan Abdel-Quddous. The judge at first refused to receive them in spite of Moawad's furious protestations. After persistent pleading the judge relented and reluctantly received him. Emboldened by this success he asked for a further favour. Moawad pleaded his client's case, saying that the sentence had been pronounced in his absence. The judge, after careful consideration, accepted Moawad's plea. The sentence was overturned.

Later the lead actress would ask him how on earth he got the verdict overturned. The most expeditious method of winning a case, he told her, is to gain the judge's sympathy.

A professional lawyer must do his work and not get emotionally entangled in a case. Moawad recalls when an actor and actress, Ma'ali Zayed and Mamdouh Mowafi, had been sentenced and were appealing against serving a jail term. They turned to Moawad in desperation.

It was essential to have a complete dossier, with every extenuating circumstance. Moawad discovered that the penal article under which the actors were sentenced was abrogated at the time of the ruling. Moawad went straight to the prosecutor general who in turn dispatched two district attorneys who annulled the judgement.

The decisions of judges may often not be what they ought to be, though the loss of any case, he believes, is often also due to a shabby performance and lack of eloquence on the part of the lawyers, and they must be blamed accordingly.

A portrait of Moawad by the late Hussein Bikar, then a high-profile leader of the Egyptian Bahai community, takes pride of place in his office. Bikar presented him with the painting as a tribute to Moawad's efforts during the trial of the Bahai community in Egypt in the late 1980s. Moawad defended Bikar and all charges against him were dropped. He was no longer considered an apostate. Not long after the trial Bikar received the LE100,000 Mubarak award for arts. The artist was vindicated and publicly rehabilitated.

Another case revolving around the contentious issue of apostasy involved a couple of Scientologists. The case involved a Palestinian woman and Arab- Israeli man. The couple were accused of proselytising among Muslims, a serious criminal offence in Egypt. They were both Muslim-born and had later become Scientologists.

The case attracted much attention. The prosecutor gave a lacklustre performance, though Moawad knew that the only acceptable way to redeem them was for them to proclaim the shehada, or formal Muslim declaration of faith. They did so in public for all to hear.

It so happened that the trial coincided with the Arab League Beirut summit of 2002. "The Arab League summit in Beirut is convened to end the trials and tribulations of the Palestinians, this woman's people. And, we persecute her instead. How ironic," Moawad declaimed in the courtroom. "I say: Ye ghourou," he bellowed. "Let them go to hell."

His display of raw energy only made the plaintiffs more lethargic. The judge was not prepared for this interjection. The Palestinian woman and her Arab- Israeli husband were released and promptly deported.

Three foreign lawyers, an American, a German and an Italian, sat in on the case. The trio came round the next day and presented him with a shining brass lion. "You were a roaring lion and the courtroom was your den," they said brimming with admiration. The brass lion now rests on his desk.

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