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A Return to Authoritarianism in Egypt

Lawyers for human rights lawyer and journalist Hossam Bahgat have confirmed that Bahgat was detained Sunday by military officials, apparently in retaliation for his coverage of the military trial of 26 military officers who were accused and convicted of planning a coup. Bahgat writes for Mada Masr, a progressive news website. He is apparently going to be charged before a military court with

publishing “false news that harms national interests” and disseminating “information that disturbs the public peace”

in clear violation of his rights to freedom of speech.

Bahgat is the founder, former director, and now trustee of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). I first met this remarkable advocate when he was awarded the Katherine and George Alexander Law Prize in 2014, given annually by Santa Clara School of Law to a lawyer who has worked tirelessly against injustice and on behalf of universal human rights at great personal risk. His detention this week proves how deserving he was of this award. Amnesty International, academic institutions (including Stanford University and Santa Clara School of Law), the Committee to Protect Journalists, and others have all called for his immediate release without charges.

Long before Egypt’s 2011 revolution, Hossam was working tirelessly on behalf of the oppressed and the vulnerable in Egypt. His work, and the work of EIPR, makes no distinction among international human rights protections and seeks to promote civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights—all in equal measure. He has also proved adept at utilizing all available fora in defense of human rights, including UN treaty bodies, the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, domestic courts, and the international press.

This work has involved legal advocacy on behalf of vulnerable individuals and groups who exemplify the great diversity that makes up the Egyptian populace, including 

  • Islamists and women who want to wear the head scarf;
  • gay, lesbian and transgendered people;
  • female protesters subject to forcible “virginity tests” while in detention;
  • persons with disabilities;
  • Individuals who were evicted and whose homes were demolished to make way for a new bridge who were then assaulted in the shanty towns they created in desperation;
  • religious minorities, who are vulnerable to harassment and prosecution for crimes of blasphemy and defamation. Indeed, Hossam has won landmark court cases on religious freedom, particularly on behalf of Baha’i plaintiffs and Coptic Christians who are subject to systemic discrimination in Egypt.
  • Political activists whose rights to privacy have been invaded by eavesdropping and unlawful recording.

Hossam’s work even stretches to issues of public health. In particular, he has advocated for low-cost medication on behalf of individuals with Hepatitis C—a particularly pressing issue given that Egypt has one of the highest rates of HepC infection in the world.

Hossam has challenged the state of emergency law that has been in and out of effect in Egypt since the 1967 Six-Day War. This draconian legislation

  • limits political activity,
  • tolerates censorship,
  • grants extraordinary powers to the security forces,
  • allows for detention without trial, and
  • suspends certain constitutional guarantees.

Hossam has said that his work is guided by the foundational principle that the violation of the dignity, human rights, or enjoyment of equal protection of any one citizen in Egypt is a threat to all Egyptians.

Hossam’s work became even more critical with the commencement of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 in Tahrir Square, which drew inspiration from events in neighboring Tunisia. Millions of protesters from a variety of backgrounds participated in a popular uprising demanding the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and an end to the many grievances associated with his regime, including

  • police brutality and the prevalence of torture to extract information or force confessions from suspects,
  • infringements on the freedom of speech and assembly,
  • endemic corruption,
  • the abusive state of emergency law, and
  • high unemployment.

Clashes between protesters and security forces resulted in hundreds killed and over 100,000 injured. Women protesters were sexually harassed and even raped by police. Security forces were so confident of their invincibility that they subsequently accused one rape victim of indecency.

Journalists who once enjoyed a measure of freedom of the press have been targeted with sham charges of “disseminating false information” and belonging to a “terrorist organization” solely for peacefully expressing dissent. Indeed, the Committee to Protect Journalists named Egypt along with Iraq and Syria as among the top three deadliest counties for journalists in 2013. By way of example, three journalists were killed in a single day while covering attacks by security forces on supporters of ousted President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Bahgat himself was sentenced in 2011 for “insulting the military.”

EIPR has been on the front lines of the revolution, documenting violence against protesters, journalists, academics, and prisoners, and campaigning against the prosecution of civilians before military courts. EIPR has exposed the fact that hundreds of individual protesters remain detained within Egypt—some as so-called “extraordinary detainees” who are held in clandestine or informal detention facilities and camps. EIPR has also given voice to the many who have been the victim of torture and sexual assaults at the hands of members of the security forces. EIPR also worked to form and strengthen the June 30 Fact Finding Commission, which was charged with gathering evidence of acts of violence during the June 30, 2013, revolution and its aftermath and with generating robust justice and accountability recommendations.

EIPR’s work has helped to elevate these issues onto the international stage. A joint declaration by the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva expressed grave concern about Egypt’s repeated use of excessive force against demonstrators and the failure of the authorities to investigate cases of abuse and hold responsible individuals accountable. The Council also denounced restrictions on freedom of assembly, expression, and association and the detention of individuals solely on account of their efforts to exercise those rights.

The trajectory of the Arab Spring has diverged dramatically across the region. Neighboring Tunisia is now governed by an inclusive coalition, whose constitutional process has generated a relatively liberal democratic constitution informed by Islamic principles. Syria, by contrast, has descended into a full-scale civil war, beset by sectarian violence rising to the level of crimes against humanity and even genocide. Egypt has been hovering somewhere in between these two extremes. Four years after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak (who had enjoyed power since 1981), Egypt remains in political turmoil. Power seemed shifted almost monthly through extra-constitutional means and coups d’etat from Mubarak, to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), to the once-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and the democratically-elected Mohamed Morsi, to a secular military dictatorship under the minister of defense, General El-Sisi, to a caretaker government Acting President Adly Mansour, and back to El-Sisi.

The prospects for genuine democracy seem slim, and the country seems to be re-committing to dictatorship, one with little space for accountability, limits on executive power, equality, or political reform. Although President Mubarak was put on trial on charges that he ordered or tolerated the murder of protesters, other individuals accused of committing abuses associated with the revolution have escaped censure due to the country’s endemic impunity. While the Arab Spring has generated a variety of outcomes across the region, the Egyptian experience remains crucially important because of its potential to exert influence elsewhere.

Given that Egypt teeters between reform and a renewed dictatorship, the work of activists like Hossam is all the more important. Please spread the word of his plight.

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About the Author

is a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford University. She was formerly the Leah Kaplan Visiting Professor of Human Rights at Stanford Law School, a Professor of Law at Santa Clara University School of Law, and Deputy to the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in the U.S. State Department. All views are her own. Follow her on Twitter (@BethVanSchaack).