Ahmed Haggag: Liberal laboratory
Egypt is aspiring to become a laboratory for democratisation, and human rights are the linchpin on which the experimentation is based. Building the political culture of a liberal democracy is no easy task. These variables must be brought to bear on any in-depth analysis of the progress of the democratisation process in contemporary Egypt. But, what exactly is happening? "We are laying the foundations of a viable and vibrant democracy," Ambassador Ahmed Haggag avers in no uncertain terms. Speculation surrounds the true nature of political reform and democratisation, concedes Haggag, head of the Human Rights Capacity Building Project (BENAA -- for short 'Building' in Arabic). And, yet there is no doubt that radical changes have been introduced. The opposition is vocal, but fragmented. The legal framework for personal, economic and social interaction is also changing. Haggag's hypothesis is that government must play a pivotal part in the introduction of a culture of respect for human rights. BENAA is well positioned to bridge the gap between the government and civic society. And, Haggag's own personal career helps him accomplish this challenging task. As secretary-general of the African Society, Zamalek, Cairo and member of the board of directors of Cairo University's Institute of African Studies, Haggag is a veteran Africanist. He was recently invited to join the council of the prestigious South African-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS).
Interview by Gamal Nkrumah
Ambassador Ahmed Haggag has acted as special envoy of President Hosni Mubarak at numerous important African forums. He was Mubarak's special envoy at the Darfur peace talks and more recently the president's special envoy at the International Forum for Democracy and Development. Serendipity played a part in both of these assignments, like on the numerous other occasions when he was dispatched by the president. However, his long and varied professional experience and his unobtrusive manner were the deciding factors. He is a man who works best behind the scenes, quietly networking.
Backed up by unusual insight and perspicuity and above all drive, Haggag is resolute about inculcating a respect for human rights among the enforcers of power and authority -- the judiciary, the police force and the security apparatus. He has made the best use he could of his wide political contacts. He sees himself as a bridge between the state and civil society. However, human rights groups, local and international, have stepped up their criticism of Egypt's human rights record. This year has witnessed a crescendo of attacks.
Haggag has no time for any of this. "The first historically- recorded strike in the world occurred in ancient Egypt where workers went on strike for not being paid for their labour," Haggag mused.
"Constructive criticism is acceptable. However, criticism that endangers state security is unacceptable for it undermines the state's capacity to fight terrorism. We must encourage dialogue and train policemen to win the hearts and minds of the people. The police must not be seen by the population at large as the instrument of repression. They must be seen as on the people's side, with the people's best interests at heart."
Put another way, Haggag dismisses the notion set forward by "certain mischief-makers" that Egypt is police state masquerading as a democracy. He concedes that the country might not have attained the "democratic ideal" but that it is getting there. "We are on the right track, I believe," he declares nonplused.
His listeners are left to pick through his speeches and lectures for clues as to how the powers that be view the vital developments and devise appropriate policies that take account of the changes. He drops a few hints about the government strategy especially as it concerns human rights.
Indeed, Haggag is a firm believer in the correlation between development and democracy. "Social development is spurred by democracy and the upholding of human rights," he stresses.
He has injected a sense of urgency and pace into the propagation of human rights. "Training the police officers to respect human rights is especially important," Haggag notes. He believes that the initial reaction against the introduction of human rights to the police has dissipated. "Many policemen are eager to learn more about human rights."
Change is sometimes measurable, albeit less easy to prove. And, Haggag readily concedes that there is plenty more for Haggag to do in a rapidly changing country such as Egypt. In October 2002, Haggag, in his capacity as Programme National Coordinator, officiated over the Human Rights and the Media Project where media workers participated in workshops and seminars designed to propagate human rights. "What was new about this particular training course was the participatory method," Haggag enthuses.
"Participants came from a wide variety of backgrounds and from different branches of audio and visual media as well as from the print media. The diversity was not restricted to the participants, but includes the lecturers and speakers as well -- distinguished intellectuals, academics, politicians, government officials and prominent professionals working in the fields of media and the law."
He noted that there were three main focus areas. First, an introduction to international charters and conventions on human rights with particular reference to the role of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in particular and the UN generally in safeguarding and supporting human rights. Second, rights as pertaining to women and children, culture and the relationship between Muslims and Christians in contemporary Egypt. "There was a flood of ideas and the interactions were characterised by open and frank discussions," Haggag assures. Third, the precise nature in practice of the complex relationship between media freedoms and issues pertaining to national security in processing information and media freedoms under the emergency law.
We move on to the prickly subject of torture. There was a number of highly-publicised cases recently. "Torture in Egypt is forbidden by law," Haggag notes. However, he concedes that there have been a few cases of torture committed by individual officers but insists that torture is not state policy. Such coercive measures, he contends, are now frowned upon. "Internal disciplinary measures are now more frequent," he says. "And, the police are very keen on their image. They are trying consciously to improve their image with the public. This is particularly clear in all the workshops that we have organised," he insists.
"We focus our efforts on the new cadets starting their careers. We want to raise a new generation of policemen who are sensitive to human rights issues. We organise workshops in rural areas and urban centres. Cairo is saturated with civic and non- governmental organisations and we involve these NGOs in our activities. The feedback is tremendous," he explains.
"We divide the police into three categories. Police station officers, prison police and wardens and policemen in the Criminal Investigations Unit," Haggag adds. "This project started five or six years ago. Police officers as well as judges and prosecutors also now take part. The Foreign Ministry and the United Nations assist in organising these seminars in conjunction with the European Union, the United Nations, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark as well as the Ford Foundation and other donor agencies. Originally, only Egyptian policemen were trained. Later on other nationalities were included. We now train Afghan judges and police officers and we are exploring the possibility of including Sudanese officers especially those from Darfur in our training courses," Haggag discloses.
He adds that he is careful to include media workers, and is currently collaborating with Al-Ahram Regional Press Institute among other organisations to commemorate Human Rights Day on 10 December. He conjured up the idea of a nationwide competition among media workers from both the official and the independent press to take part in order to encourage media workers to be sensitised to human rights concerns.
Ambassador Haggag says he is determined to keep campaigning to institute a culture of human rights in Egypt. The next part of the project is to strengthen human rights departments at Egyptian universities and institutions of higher learning."
When Haggag talks about democratisation in Egypt and the role he plays, he likes to speak about the shortcomings as well as the successes. "We have come a long way, but there is still a long way to go before we realise our objectives," he accedes.
The death of people in police custody has emerged as an issue of public concern, and not just one of the obsessions of human rights activists. The abuse of citizens in police stations has led to public outrage, and this is reflected in the independent press and media. Human rights in the police stations have come under intense scrutiny.
Popular outbursts and social unrest is another complicating matter. Egypt, after all, functions under a state of emergency. It is against this backdrop that Haggag is intent on intensifying his efforts in order to see how much progress the police makes in embracing and advocating human rights.
Police reaction to public outbursts reflects state reaction. We proceed to talking about the high levels of brutality among the police. There are pertinent questions that need to be examined and answered. Does police brutality reflect wider societal violence?
The recent brutalisation of a driver, Emad El-Kebir, at a police station and the subsequent sentencing of the two police officers who sodomised and tortured him is a case in point. According to Haggag, this was an exception to the rule.
Inevitably, however, the experience has made him reflective. Lowbrow journalists sensationalised the case, claiming that such incidents, far from being isolated cases, are quite common throughout the country.
As far as Haggag is concerned, the truth is more complicated. Yes, there is the need to be more open about abuses in the country, but the focus must be on how to train the police to be more professional and more sensitive to human rights concerns.
"What is new about this [BENAA] training course is the participatory method and the novelty of subjects opened for discussion," Haggag explains.
"The vitality of the workshop was evident in the participants' eagerness to take part in the discussions, and their enthusiasm to participate voluntarily to prepare research projects pertaining to the subjects of the training programme," he extrapolates further. Popular protest takes place in reaction to the death of a citizen in police custody. Police cars are set on fire. What happens when police fire at demonstrators?
And, even more pertinently, what do these incidents tell us?
Human rights must be viewed against the backdrop of security forces clampdowns against hotbeds of militant Islamist activism. The challenge that respect for human rights by the police poses for Egypt's political establishment is more than imaginary. In many instances, police brutality is justified by defending the security of the state.
Unperturbed by these contradictions, Haggag has a clear sense of purpose. "It is a particularly remarkable performance," he hails his training courses. However, one does not get a sense that he is blowing his own trumpet, simply that he wants to get on with his job -- his main task is to realise his goal of inculcating the critical importance of upholding human rights among officials and the police.
For all the shortcomings of the state, Haggag believes that posterity will look more kindly on efforts to politically reform the country in the past few years. There is a growing consternation with the government for having delivered too little, and many human rights activists would say, having disappointed too much.
Although, many human rights programmes begin amid much enthusiasm, they end up lacking vigour. And, this is precisely the major challenge for Haggag.
The government, its detractors add, has consistently been unable to show solid progress in some areas.
Respect for human rights does not mean that the police turn a blind eye to illegal and criminal activities. However, the upholding of human rights does mean that the police do not turn a blind eye to their own illegal actions.
It is common knowledge that members of the police indulge in corrupt and illegal activities. There is nothing inherently wrong with poorly paid policemen devising ways and means to supplement their income. In a developing country like Egypt with wide disparities in income, such questionable pursuits by policemen must come as no big surprise. But have the police always been careful not to go too far?
Servility to state security is fast being eroded. The true meaning of freedom has come under the microscope. The democratisation process and political reform must be seen against the backdrop of the retreat of the state in the economic sphere. Policemen are poorly paid and frustrated in their careers. This problem must be tackled head on.
Another trend, especially strong among the youth, is an undercurrent of rebellion against any sartorial rules and regulations of any kind. And, yet the remaining vestiges of the stern authoritarianism of the past are met with stiff resistance.
A persistent urge to resist authority is a powerful force among the increasingly vociferous opposition. How does the police force deal with that, how should it?
These factors must be brought to bear on any examination of political activism in contemporary Egypt.
Accelerated economic growth is one pillar of the government's transformation strategy. Political reform is another. And, the introduction of a culture of human rights is part and parcel of this process.
Many of the worst aspects of authoritarianism can now be consigned to history. And one of the most conspicuous features about Egypt today is the popular scrutiny of everyday practices of government and the authorities. Signalling citizen dissatisfaction is often confused with opposition to government. Meanwhile, the manner in which the police are called upon to take action and quell civil unrest has come under increasingly serious scrutiny. What is necessary is for the police to be made more sensitive to, and understanding of, the legal regulations affecting the public and private spheres of ordinary citizens.
As a sign of the times, lately ambivalence is turning into out- and-out pro-democracy activism. Democratisation is the buzzword, and it is closely associated with respect for human rights. One cannot have a democracy in which human rights are flagrantly flaunted.
Whether Haggag's current campaign will have any enduring effect on the police remains to be seen. Police eventually will have a better understanding of the concept of personal freedoms. It is also a matter of the way people feel about the state institutions, including the state security apparatus.
What part do the police play in the community mechanisms of social control? By the early 1990s, the state had stepped up police activity and intensified the politics of security in an effort to contain militant Islamist activism. The encounter of ordinary citizens with the police has emerged as the most conspicuous aspect of citizen interaction with the state. The police have become perhaps the most identifiable face of the state. It is therefore of paramount importance that the police present a humane face of the state.
There are sure signs that human rights are gaining popularity among the populace at large. People are becoming more acutely aware of their rights.
Haggag is convinced that the government will eventually work out a model for political reform. And his organisation BENAA, he stresses, must be seen as a step towards the realisation of this goal.
In pursuit of this goal, and after some nudging from local and international human rights organisations, the Egyptian police appear to be more inclined to embrace human rights. To his credit, Haggag cannot be criticised for any lack of trying.
This might just work, but the odds against remain high. Public cynicism is rife. There is an increasing number of strategically- positioned Egyptians like Haggag who want to advance the human rights agenda. But the disappointments of the public go further back than that. People do not always react positively to such initiatives by personalities closely associated with the state.
Haggag, though, does not shy away from such "hurdles". He is prepared to persevere and overcome any initial inertia.
"The workshop was designed in such a way to allow for more discussion and dialogue, which added vitality and interaction to the programme," he says of the programme for educating the police in human rights.
"The flood of ideas and propositions of the participants to improve their professional performance and support the role of the media in promoting respect for human rights was another important feature of these workshops."
Nonetheless there are grounds to think that Haggag could get further than his predecessors in government who tried to inculcate a sense of human rights. He has long argued to build a consensus around human rights. Haggag's hallmark is to introduce a sense of the urgency of human rights among the authorities, including state security and the police, with well- communicated and plain-spoken appeals to common sense.
The style in which he pursues his cause is hands-on with regular seminars and workshops. A new generation of police officers with a keen consciousness of the key importance of human rights to their profession is on the make.
"One of my main concerns is to draw out the inane interest in human rights, to draw people's attention to the inalienable rights of every citizen -- civil and human rights," Haggag asserts. His ultimate goal is to put human rights on the political agenda of the government. He does not shy away from challenges; instead, he hopes to tackle head on "predicaments such as media work restrictions and the complexity of the relationship between media freedoms and the right to private life, issues relating to national security in processing information under the current new developments in communications."
Ambassador Haggag insists on the inculcation of a culture of human rights, especially among the police. In broad terms, this project engages with the nature of the political reform processes and the definition of democratisation and liberalisation.
Given that the odds may seem stacked against him, this degree of interest by the police officers is no small achievement.
Another epoch-making task that greatly interests Haggag is devising means that "highlights the role of the judiciary in promulgating laws that uphold the respect for human rights in the country," Haggag explained. "It is a growing role that is not restricted to applying the law and attaining justice," he stressed. "The role of the judiciary extends also to the preservation of the constitution and the support of public freedoms," he noted.
"Judges have always managed to skilfully perm this role thus making the ruling of the High Constitutional Court, the Appeal Court, the State's Council and the reasons behind the findings an effective literature for the legal and political culture of the state and the pride of society," he asserts.
As an Africanist, Haggag had to end the interview on an African-inspired afterthought. "This leads us to propose the establishment of an African Forum for Political Parties. Such a forum will constitute a platform for those parties to exchange experience in order to be an instrument of change on our continent," Haggag, representing President Hosni Mubarak, told the Democracy and Development Conference in the Bourkinabe capital Ouagadougou (14-16 October 2007).
"I was representing Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party in Ouagadougou. However, this was a meeting of minds, of ruling and opposition parties throughout the continent. We do not mean a forum for governing political parties only, but one which is open to all parties, not based on ideological leanings but all shades of opinion," Haggag insists.
As special envoy of President Mubarak, Haggag is keen on enhancing the role of civil society in spreading awareness of human rights in Egypt and throughout Africa and the Arab world.
Mubarak, Haggag extrapolated further, alluded to the attempt two decades ago to form a forum of African socialist parties, the African Socialist, modelled on the Socialist International.
Ambassador Haggag is also especially impressed with non- governmental figures that have adopted the cause. A case in point -- Egyptian UN goodwill ambassadors such as well-known actors and pop stars Adel Imam, Hussein Fahmi and Youssra. He specifically mentioned Youssra in sensitising the public in general and the police in particular in cases of rape and the sexual harassment of women, where the victim is often criminalised.
It remains to be seen whether Haggag's tireless efforts will bear fruit. There may yet be more breathing space for advocates of human rights. The tipping point, however, may still be years or even decades away.