Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 November 2003
Issue No. 664
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Fearless speech

Human Rights Watch honours outspoken rights activist Aida Seif El-Dawla for her work. She spoke with Amira Howeidy before the ceremony in New York


Click to view caption
A bird's eye view of the 20 March anti-war demonstrations

Aida Seif El-Dawla
A few days before Egyptian rights activist Aida Seif El-Dawla was honoured by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in New York on 12 November, the organisation released a report criticising the excessive use of force and torture by the Egyptian security apparatus in its clampdown on anti-war demonstrations last spring. The report's release was obviously meant to coincide with the honouring of an Egyptian human rights defender active in the anti-war demonstrations. However, the appropriateness of accepting an award from an American organisation was questioned, given that local anti-US sentiment is high, and the agendas and motives of Western rights groups are under scrutiny.

Seif El-Dawla was naturally aware of the tension. "I didn't have a problem with the award, but I felt that some people might object to it because HRW is an American organisation," she told Al-Ahram Weekly before her departure to New York to receive the $10,000 prize. "It's not a Sonallah thing," she said as an afterthought, referring to Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim, who made headlines two weeks ago when he turned down a prestigious state cultural award because, as he said, "it's granted by a government that doesn't have credibility."

"This is not a government award," she said, "it's from an NGO we actually work with. We don't agree on everything, but we also don't agree on everything with a lot of Egyptian NGOs in Egypt." She did, however, consult with many people before accepting the award, which she will donate entirely to her organisation, the Al-Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture.

"HRW is a human rights group and, by definition, human rights groups have limits. The human rights perspective might sometimes be what they call 'objective' but it's not from the victim's point of view. Take, for example, martyrdom operations. Regardless of my opinion, it needs serious awareness-raising so that people understand the language of martyrdom as a last weapon people use to tell the world about what's happening to them."

A left-wing human rights defender, political activist and psychiatrist, 49-year-old Seif El-Dawla has earned a reputation as an unrelenting and outspoken activist who is always at the front lines of daring political reform or anti-torture campaigns. Since its establishment in 1993, Al-Nadeem Centre, which she co-founded, has expanded its work from assisting victims of torture to publishing and disseminating their testimonies as well as campaigning against the practice, which Seif El-Dawla says "occurs everyday and everywhere". More recently however, Al-Nadeem has been coordinating campaigns with the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre and other groups against illegal detentions of anti-war and political activists.

Al-Nadeem recently launched a campaign against an officer in the State Security Intelligence (SSI) unit which it accuses of torturing several anti-war activists and other individuals, placing itself in direct confrontation with the most sensitive sector of the Egyptian security apparatus.

Seif El-Dawla is politically outspoken, although she's not a member of any political party. She is co- founder of the Egyptian Committee in Solidarity with the Palestinian Intifada (ECSPI), the 20 March Movement for Change, as well as being Al- Nadeem's representative to the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (CDD).

When asked why HRW has chosen her for its highest recognition, Seif El-Dawla argues that, "HRW might have chosen someone from Al- Nadeem because the centre is a front-liner now for its position on torture and it could be subject to police harassment, so they considered this to be some sort of protection."

Although there is no protection from torture or arrest as she concedes, "international relations make a difference when something does happen because the world gets to know."

Indeed, when the security forces conducted a massive arrest campaign against anti-war protesters last spring, international support proved effective. By releasing its report titled Security Forces Abuse of Anti-War Demonstrators, HRW was making available to the international community a documented account of the events that took place on 20 and 21 March, when thousands of Egyptians went to the streets at the outset of the US-led invasion of Iraq. The report accuses security forces of rights violations, including the excessive use of force in dispersing demonstrators and bystanders on 21 March; violating the freedom of assembly; conducting arbitrary arrests and detentions, including children; beatings and mistreatment of persons in detention, in some cases amounting to torture; and failing to provide medical care to seriously injured detainees.

"The government has an obligation under international law to conduct a prompt, impartial inquiry into serious allegations," the report concluded.

Following are excerpts from the interview:

Many believe that 20 March was a watershed in activism that resulted in a classification of rights groups as either populist or elitist -- the latter participating in a dialogue with the ruling NDP. How do you see this division?

Some activists believe that human rights groups have to be professional, for example organisations which stick to the defined, mainstream mechanisms and are not populist in nature. Then there are others who say "No", there has to be a popular movement that adopts and defends the principles of human rights, and that the role of rights groups is to provide support for people to help them demand their rights.

This is a primary point of contention that divided the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights in 1993, and later divided the once-united human rights organisations. It was evident before the NGO law [which imposed restrictions on NGOs] that we were unified and coordinated despite our differences. But that didn't last as the law was passed and each NGO dealt with it individually. Then came the NDP dialogue. Even taxi drivers were saying that the regime is acting upon instructions from the Americans: how can you negotiate with it?

When organisations were invited for this dialogue, we were just beginning a campaign in solidarity with [anti-war activist and student] Ramez Gihad against an officer in the SSI. The officer sent us a warning through none other than a leading rights activist. At the same time, the NDP was sending out invitations for the dialogue. So, there were no signs of good will. What's a dialogue when we're under Emergency Law? A dialogue with who and about what?

How can I sit with Ramez Gihad in the morning and then sit with the politburo of the NDP for a "dialogue". [Tagammu Party leaders] Khaled Mohieddin and Rifaat El-Said were meeting with the NDP at night, and the next day the CDD received a threat from the SSI to ban the march on Abdeen Palace that wanted to hand over a reform agenda to the president. How can they do this when they were sitting with the Tagammu people the night before?

The debate over foreign funding and the failure of rights groups to convince society to fund their activities locally is being revisited with your acceptance of the HRW award. What is your view on this matter?

Put aside local or foreign funding and let's talk about funding in general. No one can work without funding. People don't fund or support human rights groups because human rights groups were born in a hostile environment and condemned by both the government and political parties.

Human rights groups worked for years without any funding until some were closed down and there weren't people to do the work. No one donated money. Whether its local or foreign, funding has more to do with whatever is available. Arab organisations always establish a list of conditions for funding.

Do you think this is mere bureaucracy or deficiency on their part?

I think it's because the heritage of civic activity doesn't really exist in an organised way. We're familiar with the concept of local political parties or charity organisations. Unconditional funding of an organisation doesn't exist.

When you lobby a government it must upset the government because you're asking it to do something it doesn't do -- although this practice exists all over the world. People are not used to democratic practice. When someone is arrested during a demonstration, for example, you'll find a human rights activist who would say "well he was sloganeering against Mubarak" -- and this is an activist who believes in freedom of expression.

There is nothing in the [human rights] covenant that says "... unless he chants against Mubarak". He didn't have a gun, he just spoke. So, there's a heritage of dictatorship and authoritarianism that prevents [Arab organisations] from funding rights groups on principle.

What you're saying supports government claims that we're not ready for full democracy because of the heritage of dictatorship you mentioned.

I didn't say that. There is no way for people to learn democracy other than living in a democracy.

Of course there will be mistakes, but they definitely won't be more than what we have now. There is nothing worse than what we have now. When people had the rare chance to live with a bit of democracy and were left alone, nothing happened.

On 20 March, we were in a square surrounded by Pizza Hut, KFC, Hardee's, etc, and no one touched anything. When people wanted to go to the US Embassy, everyone wanted to go as well because it stood for occupation and hegemony. So when people were given the chance and didn't feel threatened, they were very democratic.

But to starve people, surround them with 50,000 police officers, beat them up and say they're a bunch of hooligans? The only way for people to learn democracy is to live democracy -- there is no other way. There is no training for that.

20 March was a leftist invitation for change. Don't you find that in total contradiction with the street, which is largely Islamist?

20 March is an invitation to create a movement that includes all the people who agree with its agenda. As a leftist myself, I'm convinced that the interests of the people lies in socialism. I won't ask them to become leftists, but I'm telling them you have the right to organise, and what's happening in Iraq is related to poverty here, and because they're the majority their interest should come first -- these are socialist ideas.

On the other hand, I don't think the street is Islamic or leftist. Yes, the majority of women are veiled.

Today the 'street' is a serious subject for two discourses: the government's, which most people reject, and an Islamist one, basically that of the Muslim Brotherhood.

And so instead of thinking of how the young and women will find jobs when they graduate, the focus now is whether they should wear nail varnish before or after iftar, and how the veil should look. Of course this affects people. You have no channels to address the people, no TV or radio.

At the same time, how many Egyptians manoeuvre around laws or offer bribes in order to get work done? I think this is against religion. I'm not against religiosity, but religion has nothing to do with politics.

By taking up various political causes in addition to your work as a human rights defender, your agenda seems rather confused.

Our agenda is not confused at all. Depoliticising human rights is wrong. Human rights are not party politics. We can't, in the name of human rights or at Al-Nadeem, support a specific platform just because it's a leftist one. But we can invite the candidates to join in efforts to combat torture in Egypt. We're not into party politics, but by default the work you do is political.

If the Interior Ministry invited us to give them the testimonies of victims of torture and investigated them with us, we'd go. But it doesn't matter to me if the NDP invites me for a dialogue in order to use me politically. That's party politics.

You said there's no human rights "movement" in Egypt. Why? And do you think HRW honouring an Egyptian activist could advance human rights?

It's not a movement because a movement isn't the formation of a number of organisations, which is currently the situation for rights groups. And, there is no movement without solidarity.

Even the existing organisations don't show solidarity with other organisations. Human rights activities are limited to organisations and most organisations don't have a membership base -- partially because of police intervention and because most organisations were formed only to avoid government harassment.

And those with membership don't know anything about the members or the membership is frozen. We have no channels; we work by fax, internet and phone.

The HRW award is a nice thing for the centre -- it will provide financial support for our anti-torture efforts, and help networking and exposure to organisations over there. But that's it.

How has Al-Nadeem's work improved in combating torture now that the centre is 10 years old?

Of course we've improved. But we're a small centre and in the end the number of people who come to us are one in a million, although torture happens everyday.

At first people came and were afraid, and we were afraid, too. We had decided to help the victims only and not do any campaigns. We thought we knew what was happening, we thought we could monitor the places where torture occurs. But we discovered that torture happens everywhere and anywhere and is systematic -- it's supported by the state.

Political victims only came to us once, when the wife of an Islamist who was tortured to confess about her husband turned to us. And then later, we received people from the anti-war demonstrations and the ECSPI [who were arrested or tortured]. But we realised we didn't understand what was going on, and we did a re-evaluation of our work and decided we'll become more active in campaigning and publishing testimonies, and that encourages people to come.

More people come to us for assistance, but they also wanted to take their torturers to court. Those who came to us were people who reached a point where they don't think anything worse could happen to them. That there's nothing worse than your son being tortured and hanged upside down from his feet, or that your daughter is held in a prison cell full of men. When everything is violated there is nothing to fear.

In one case, a young man who was arrested and tortured then released was getting daily threats. His father refused to expose the case to us until one day the boy was hit by a car. The father decided that was enough and we issued a statement exposing it. Since that day, the threats and the phone calls stopped entirely.

Do you think Al-Nadeem's campaigning constituted a form of protection for some victims?

Yes, in some cases we provided protection for some victims. In one case, the victim was tortured and raped in order to confess about her husband. The only way she could get back at them was to file a complaint with the [ombudsman] in the public prosecutor's office.

They arrested her again, tortured her, and threatened to kill her children so that she wouldn't go to the public prosecutor the day they were opening an investigation into her complaint. She came to us and we literally hid her, along with her children and mother, for three days and then took her directly to the prosecutor.

Once it was over and she gave them her account, she was safe. We're not alone, by the way -- a lot of doctors work with us and do operations and medical reports, but they prefer to remain anonymous.

What is needed for a centre like yours to perform, in order to eradicate torture in Egypt?

One centre is never enough. There has to be someone everywhere doing this -- popular committees or anything.

International organisations have proved effective in taking your efforts to an international level. But how helpful is it to your work?

This kind of support is useful, but relying on it is wrong. It's useful in our work now in that there's something called the International Criminal Court and during my visit to the US we'll start the process of filing a complaint at the ICC against an officer whose been torturing activists.

This won't stop torture, but it's enough that when this person travels abroad he'll be stopped in airports. We don't have any grand illusions that he'll end up in court.

But they have to know there is a price; they can't live and torture people without a price.

Would you describe torture as the worst form of oppression?

This is an unfair question. For the person being tortured nothing is worse than torture, but for someone who starved to death nothing is worse than starving.

Think of the man who killed himself because he can't provide for his children. I think this was the worst thing that ever happened to him.

They're all forms of oppression. Torture is the most obvious because it has physical constraints: you're blindfolded and don't know where they'll beat you or electrocute you next. You can't even commit suicide.

In psychiatry, torture is equal to natural disasters which you can't do anything about.

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