Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 February - 1 March 2006
Issue No. 783
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Negad El-Borai

Negad El-Borai: The right person, the right time

In 1941, Negad El-Borai's mother, Karima Ali Hussein, one of only five woman lawyers in Egypt at the time, founded a law firm in downtown Cairo. For over 65 years now, that firm has provided quality consultations not only on legal but on financial matters, aiding bureaucratically tormented, ill funded NGOs free of charge in proposal writing, implementation of programmes and follow-up. The company, which produces informative booklets on the founding and management of NGOs, is chaired by El-Borai, who was secretary-general of Egyptian Human Rights Organisation (EHRO) from 1994 to 1996 before founding his own Group for Democratic Development (GDD) -- an interest that started in 1985 when he became a member of EHRO's legal committee, at the very core of the then emerging human rights movement. But aside from his human rights work, this is but one of many things with which Hussein's heir busies himself. He has written on, among other topics, freedom of expression, democratic process and the Egyptian press. His latest study explores the views of 500 lawyers on torture in Egypt -- its scope and use, the laws against it and the role of prosecutors and human rights organisations in its practise. He has also designed and implemented training courses and workshops for activists, lawyers, journalists and the cadres of political parties. He pays particular attention to Law 84 of 2002, which was aimed at providing NGOs with legal and technical assistance. Critical thinking, effective writing, civic and legal awareness are among his areas of expertise; and his programmes have helped hundreds of people use them to broaden the scope of civil life and democratic process.
Interview by Sahar El-Bahr

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Located in the famous Emobilia building in downtown Cairo, the 65-year-old office from which Negad El-Borai works has what must be one of the largest photographic collections in Cairo. Almost every inch of the walls shows evidence of El-Borai's professional life together with the figures who have helped him through it. The photos, he says, induce the feeling that he is surrounded by facets of his achievement: "they give me confidence, hope and an incentive to go on."

It started with the Israeli occupation of Beirut, in the course of the Lebanese Civil War, when pro-Palestinian activists like El-Borai first thought of doing their bit to improve democracy in Arab as opposed to Israeli society at a time when President Hosni Mubarak, having come to power, had released political prisoners, thus instigating an encouraging political climate: "there was a perception among the intelligentsia that Egypt's democratic experiment, cut short by Anwar El-Sadat, could be revived under the new president." And it was the Nasserists, together with nationalists and Marxists, who instigated the movement: "frustrated that they had failed to implement their slogans, they found an outlet in human rights -- to my mind that was the real drive behind the human rights movement in Egypt."

The first challenge occurred soon after that when militant Islamic violence was faced with an equally brutal crackdown. El-Borai insists that the EHOR lived up to it with "exceptional professionalism". It criticised the Ministry of Interior and stood by Islamists whose rights were violated.

In 1989 EHOR members themselves, on no clearer a charge than "forming an underground communist organisation", were arrested and tortured. What they had really done was support a miners' strike, condemning the police's harsh measures against the strikers. It was, El-Borai says, a turning point in the history of Egyptian human rights, since within a few days of the arrest, an internationally supported, large-scale campaign had effected the prisoners' release. "We became popular," he recounts, "society began to think of us as heroes -- and this encouraged us to move ahead."

After a bitter disagreement with other EHOR members about whether or not the EHOR should engage with reform (namely monitoring the 1995 parliamentary elections) as well as fighting illegal detention, torture and censorship -- and El-Borai thought the EHOR should -- the by now seasoned activist left to form the GDD. It wasn't until 2001, following the arrest of the man who replaced him on charges of receiving illegal funding from the British Embassy, that El-Borai once again became a member of the EHOR board of trustees. Yet he remains dissatisfied with what he feels is a replication of the state's own modes of administration within the EHOR, with older activists retaining their positions rather than democratically handing down authority to the young.

The GDD, for its part, had an ordeal in 2000 when it disbanded following the passing of Law 153 of 1999: "the government took us by surprise -- a law so awfully restricting NGO activities, and our members harassed by the police. We thought it was better to stop altogether." They did not resume their activities until 2003, by which time "the democratic climate had improved". Most recently the GDD published the Arab Guide for Free and Fair Elections.

El-Borai's work has been about setting a precedent as much as anything, and the rise in the number of human rights NGOs to 200 reflects this. Regardless of how effective or even well meaning they might be, these organisations point to greater awareness of the issue.

And since 2001, El-Borai says, the government's attitude has improved due to a younger, more open-minded cabinet. Not only in Egypt but throughout the world, "human rights are increasingly accepted and endorsed." More interesting is the government's realisation that "we are not political dissidents as such." They do not aim at undermining its authority or replacing it, in other words, but rather target society as a whole, encouraging plurality and participation and monitoring political life. And valid criticisms aside.

El-Borai is proud of the fact that reforms that were but distant dreams when the movement started (multi-candidate presidential elections, for example) are now discussed and implemented. He concedes that the movement is not the direct or only reason for this: "but we paved the way. We worked hard to spread the culture of human rights." Still, El-Borai is far from satisfied with current reforms: "things have changed, there have been improvements. But there is still a lot to be done."

According to El-Borai, the Arab-Israeli conflict, which makes people suspicious of all that comes from abroad -- hence human rights funding -- is largely to blame for the fact that, compared to similar movements in Asia and Latin America, the movement in Egypt has achieved little.

The tendency to condemn institutions that receive funding from abroad is evident across the board, in pro- and anti- government circles alike. As El-Borai indicates, however, there exist no other options for funding. Fortunately, he added, foreign funding as a legitimate means to good work is increasingly accepted.

In the last parliamentary elections, together with other organisations, the GDD received $250,000 from USAID for training some 750 observers to monitor elections; they managed to do so without trouble. Five years ago, by contrast, when he called for international monitoring of elections in Egypt, El-Borai was accused of being an Israeli spy -- in a left-wing newspaper.

Only last year El-Borai was funded by the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) to implement a programme entitled "Looking to the future", which aimed to increase political participation by encouraging voters to take part in the November 2005 elections, training 480 lawyers and 370 political mediators to act as agents for candidates and manage campaigns, respectively. Operating in eight governorates, El-Borai thought the campaign might not work due to the MEPI fund, yet many young lawyers who were members of left-wing parties were eager to participate.

Yet why are foreign countries interested in spending millions on democracy in Egypt? "I'm not interested in who's paying or why. I don't know what the ulterior motives of the funders are, and I don't care. My concern is that the money should be spent professionally and that it should service the required ends." El-Borai just writes proposals and implements the programmes he proposes; that's all he holds himself responsible for.

Still, he is quick to point out that he agrees with the funders' declared objectives -- enhancing democracy and sustaining human rights: "I want to work for these objectives. I will do what it takes. I will ally myself with the devil himself to bring about these objectives."

The human rights movement in Egypt is currently going through a critical phase, El-Borai says. Having reached a climax of success, it must move onto a new phase of institutionalisation. Otherwise it will end up in the same position as political parties like Al-Wafd and Al-Tagammu; though strong through the 1980s and 1990s, the lack of institutionalisation has led to their downfall, judging by the number of parliamentary seats they hold if nothing else. Today, he says, human rights institutions are working as haphazardly and aimlessly as those parties; a cadre exists, but there is no accumulation of experience.

Lack of coordination is his second major gripe: organisations all work on the same things at the same time, abandoning others equally collectively. A 2006-2010 plan for GDD is El-Borai's own attempt at remedying this "hideous waste of resources and of potential". During that period he intends to stress the importance of sharing national wealth with disinherited governorates -- an aim he feels should go hand in hand with political and economic development. Fighting corruption and enhancing the role of parliament are among his highest priorities. As far as El-Borai is concerned, the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) released a fairly positive report on the last parliamentary election. Once among the NCHR's harshest critics, El-Borai now praises the improvement it has undergone, with the high-profile figures who run it realising how badly they had performed and working hard to make amends -- just another step on the road to freedom.

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