Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 October 2011
Issue No. 1067
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Negad El-Borai: hopes and fears in a time of change

One of Egypt's best-known human rights activists and civil society figures, Negad El-Borai is fighting for the continuation of the 25 January Revolution

photo: Mohamed Wassim Click to view caption
Negad El-Borai
photo: Mohamed Wassim

Veteran human rights activist and lawyer Negad El-Borai heads a legal consultancy situated in downtown Cairo's famed Emobilia building. He inherited the firm from his mother Karima Ali Hussein, who was one of only five women lawyers in Egypt in the early 1940s. Ever since, the law firm has continued to provide quality consultations on legal and financial matters, aiding bureaucratically tormented, ill-funded NGOs free of charge in their proposal writing, programme implementation and follow-up. The firm is also well known for its information booklets that provide guidelines on how to set up and manage NGOs.

Before founding the Group for Democratic Development (GDD) in which he plays a leading role, El-Borai was secretary-general of the Egyptian Human Rights Organisation (EHRO) from 1994 to 1996. His activity in the movement began in 1985, when he became a member of the EHRO's legal committee, at the core of the then emerging human rights movement.

Among other topics, El-Borai has written extensively on freedom of expression, democratic processes and the Egyptian press. He wrote a study exploring the views of 500 lawyers on torture in Egypt, for example, focusing on the extent of its use, the laws against it and the role of prosecutors and human rights organisations in limiting or ending it. Over the years, El-Borai has designed and implemented hundreds of training courses, projects and workshops on human rights for activists, lawyers, journalists, judges and political party cadres.

Having enjoyed such a rich professional life, El-Borai was about to stop working in the field of human rights in order to start writing his memoirs, a decision he revoked following the start of the demonstrations on 25 January this year demanding the end of the Mubarak regime. "After 25 January, I changed my plans, as I really hoped to be able to participate in the building of a new Egypt," El-Borai told Al-Ahram Weekly.

"However, I was confronted with a series of frustrations, and I realised that my hopes would not be fulfilled in the near future. As a result, I decided once again to give up working on human rights and to write my memoirs instead," he said.

Chief among El-Borai's frustrations is his view that "what has taken place in Egypt since 25 January has mistakenly been called a revolution. Actually, it is just a widespread protest movement that has led to some minor changes in the regime. A revolution would involve the collapse of the old regime and its replacement by a new one, complete with a new vision of the future. Unfortunately, this has not taken place."

The anger that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak was not directed against the former president alone, El-Borai says. Rather, it was spurred on by the methods used by the former regime, one that El-Borai claims continues to govern the state today even after Mubarak's fall. The counter-revolution that Egypt is witnessing today, El-Borai says, is an attempt by the regime, which has continued to rule in spite of recent events, to hold onto power. "We have to start the fight all over again, as if Mubarak were still among the ruling elite," he says. "We have to try to forget that he is in jail."

Regarding the 18 days of protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square that led to the ousting of Mubarak on 11 February, El-Borai says that while he started out with a profound sense of optimism and the hope that this was the end of a regime that he had opposed for so long, he later felt deeply frustrated at the way things turned out. However, he does not regret the events in Tahrir Square, viewing them as a kind of window onto the Egypt he has always dreamt of.

This is in contrast to the 18 revolutionary days during which, El-Borai says, people expressed their anger against the years of suffering they had experienced during the Mubarak period. He blames himself and other intellectuals and political figures for failing to put together a vision for the post-Mubarak era. "The organisers of the demonstrations should not have left the Square after 11 February, and a council comprising at least 50 leading figures should have been formed before this date in order to lead the revolution from beyond the confines of the Square."

The reason why political activists and intellectuals failed in this regard was their own lack of experience, El-Borai says. They were too willing to allow themselves to be swept along on the wave of popular contestation. They should have kept their heads and planned seriously for the future. Only two good things have happened since 25 January, he adds: the new freedom to form political parties and the decision by state television to grant airtime to opposition figures.

On the other hand, the workload of NGOs working in the human rights field has increased over recent months with more and more reports of human rights violations, and the number of civilians tried before military courts has increased from 2,000 to 12,000. "We are currently working on many cases related to corruption and killings," El-Borai says, describing the work of his own organisation. "I recently filed a report against Prime Minister Essam Sharaf at the prosecutor-general's office, because he had recommended his nephew for a job at one of the state petroleum companies, for example."

In El-Borai's view, Sharaf is not fit to be prime minister, and he complains of the prime minister's lack of technical and political skills. Sharaf is a former member of the powerful policies committee of the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), and he was a member of former prime minister Ahmed Nazif's government in 2005 when the fraudulent 2005 parliamentary elections took place. "If he failed in his government posts under the former regime, how will he now succeed in running the country," El-Borai asks.

Sharaf, El-Borai believes, was chosen as prime minister because he had no political programme or vision, the SCAF believing that for this reason it would find it easier to deal with him. "This is the reason why the SCAF always refuses to accept his resignation: it's because he's ready to obey the SCAF's orders." The prime minister's main priorities now should be safeguarding the security of the nation and preparing for the upcoming elections, El-Borai says, though he has little faith in the ability of either Sharaf or the SCAF to run the country.

The SCAF is unlikely to hand over power to a civilian president because there is no reason why it should do so, he adds, arguing that what we may now see in Egypt is a replay of the "1956 scenario", in which military men will simply exchange their uniforms for civilian clothing.

According to El-Borai, the SCAF has also been able to persuade the Muslim Brotherhood that it is ready to back the Islamist group against former Mubarak supporters and other political parties. It has persuaded the Brotherhood that the SCAF stands with it against the secularists, while also persuading the secularists that it backs a secular state against the Islamists. The SCAF has been able to manipulate all the parties into acquiescing to its rule, leaving them to argue among themselves.

Asked if he expected a revolution to erupt in Egypt before 25 January, El-Borai replies that he had been convinced since 2008 that if Gamal Mubarak took over as president then there would be a revolution within a few years of that event. "I remember attending a seminar in Alexandria in 2008 organised by the Ghad Party. At the time I said publicly that the regime would collapse within five years at the most after Gamal Mubarak's becoming president. However, such a collapse would be useless if it did not lead to a better regime."

The problem today, as El-Borai sees it, is that the Mubarak regime did indeed collapse, though before, not after, Gamal Mubarak's appointment as president, leaving nothing better to take its place. "Politics in Egypt today is distinct from what is happening in any other system worldwide, and that distinctiveness is rooted in the Egyptian personality. The political forces we have are unqualified and unprepared to rule because they never thought that this ever could happen. They do not have clear programmes that can be publicly discussed, and they are in a state of complete chaos and confusion as they attempt to move forward in a haphazard way."

Regarding recent accusations made by various officials against human rights organisations and other NGOs working in Egypt, El-Borai said that some media outlets had alleged that the prosecutor general's office had received complaints against a number of them, while others had reported that a fact-finding committee would be set up to investigate alleged NGO corruption. However, no NGO has been summoned for questioning, he says, as the allegations are baseless.

"If the government has documents containing evidence against the NGOs, then what are they waiting for," he asks. "They should bring the evidence to the attention of the prosecutor-general's office as soon as possible."

The allegations are part of an attempt to manipulate the forthcoming parliamentary elections to favour candidates put forward by Islamist groups, so that these groups would win a majority of the seats in the next Egyptian parliament, suggesting to the world that the country was not ready for democracy. "The SCAF's plan is to try to defame the NGOs that will monitor the elections and to create problems for them in order to keep them occupied with their own internal problems."

The NGO movement suffered attacks both before and after the toppling of Mubarak, he says, pointing to the attack by military police on the Hisham Mubarak Centre for Human Rights and the arrest of its employees. "Hostility against NGOs seems to be deep-rooted, because they are calling for a civil state and a new constitution," he said.

In the aftermath of the recent changes, the US provided $40 million in grants to a number of local NGOs, while handing over $260 million to the government. El-Borai's organisation, for example, received $337,000 from the US to implement a one-year project focused on political development. "We have published a statement about the project and its funding," El-Borai says, "and the budget is available to all on the Website. I wonder why it is always human rights NGOs that are the subject of defamation and that are attacked for receiving foreign funding. The state receives foreign funds, as do business-oriented NGOs."

Moreover, $40 million in NGO grants is tiny when compared to the extent of the country's needs. Egypt will require a great deal of investment to overcome the legacy of the dictatorial regimes that have ruled it for more than 60 years, El-Borai says, and to help it set up a democratic state. NGOs in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 received foreign funding estimated in the billions of dollars, he says.

Contrary to statements that the revolution owed nothing to the country's human rights groups or older political parties, El-Borai says that in fact these played a role in the wave of change, albeit in a cumulative manner. "No hammer, no matter how sharp, can break a solid piece of rock. But drops of water can erode it over time. We have worked hard over the last 25 years, issuing public statements and training thousands of young people, in order to make the revolution possible" El-Borai told the Weekly.

Asked why Egyptian human rights NGOs do not try to raise local funding instead of relying on foreign funds, El-Borai says that there is little culture of funding such work in Egypt, though many people are willing to contribute money to help fund hospitals, schools or mosques. NGOs receiving foreign funds are often criticised for adopting foreign agendas, something which El-Borai does not deny, merely pointing out that such foreign agendas are compatible with his own.

Regarding the way NGOs have reacted to the recent attacks, El-Borai says that "complaints have been made to a number of international organisations concerned with freedom of expression worldwide, among them the special representative of the Freedom of Expression Committee at the United Nations, as well as the office of the UN Africa representative."

If human rights organisations in Egypt have been unjustly attacked, former president Mubarak is being allowed to get off far too lightly, El-Borai believes. In addition to the charges of giving orders to fire on unarmed protesters, for which Mubarak is currently being tried in Cairo, "he should be tried for the systematic corruption that was allowed to thrive in the country under his rule, devastating the state and the lives of successive generations."

Mubarak's rule was ruinous for Egypt's political, economic and social well-being, El-Borai says. "Mubarak should be put on trial for the contaminated food, the polluted water and the filthy air that has afflicted millions of people, especially children, with cancer and other diseases. He should also be put on trial for his regime's continual violations of human rights, including the use of torture and the arbitrary arrests."

By Sahar El-Bahr

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