I know Mona Seif only slightly. She’s one of the few human rights activists in Egypt (or anywhere) whom almost everybody likes. She’s utterly unpretentious. As I wrote a year ago, “Her complete immunity from the vagaries of ego is like a genetic quirk, so uncommon is it in the profession; it’s like meeting someone who never caught the common cold.” This year she’s one of three finalists for the Martin Ennals Award, a signal honor in the human rights field, usually given to those who have much to be pretentious about. She’s also facing a smear campaign by Hillel Neuer of so-called “UN Watch,” a former corporate lawyer and lobbyist for Israel, who has mobilized cohorts of the libellous and ignorant to grind down her reputation.
First, about Mona. Shortly after Mubarak fell, presciently, she started fighting the ruling military junta’s practice of trying detained civilians in military kangaroo courts. She was one of the first democracy activists to perceive the malign persistence of the Mubarak-era security state. Over the next 18 months, as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces tightened its grip on the country, some 12,000 people faced these tribunals. The group Mona helped found, No to Military Trials for Civilians, was the pre-eminent organization in Egypt opposing these abuses. She’s also helped to document police torture and a range of violations by security forces. Police arrested and tortured Mona herself at a demonstration in December 2011, so she knows what they do first-hand. No to Military Trials is also one of the few decentralized, grassroots human rights movements, as opposed to NGOs, in Egypt today. It brings human rights back to its roots, in the passions of ordinary people making demands unmediated by boards of directors. It’s changed the landscape of rights advocacy in post-Revolutionary Egypt.
In the other corner: the appalling Neuer and his organization. “UN Watch” can be said to watch the UN (which certainly bears watching) only if I could be said to read the New York Times by doing the crossword puzzles obsessively and throwing the other 100+ pages away. Founded by the American Jewish Committee, and still largely funded by them, the posh Geneva-based outfit’s mission is to discredit anything the UN does or says that’s critical of Israel. The rest of the UN’s work interests it only insofar as it can be used against some rapporteur or resolution that questions Israel. This ambition has grown with time: now UN Watch prosecutes Thoughtcrime even if lurking in other institutions. Mona is caught in the crossfire. She’s a very big figure in Egypt; but Neuer, whose knowledge of Cairo is limited, could care less, except he can tar Human Rights Watch, or Amnesty International, for having laid laurels upon an evil Arab and thus encouraged perfidy and terror. And there are certain relevant grudges he holds relating to Israel’s economic interests in the adjoining country. More on these later.
10 international human rights organizations jointly award the Ennals prize: Amnesty, HRW, the International Federation for Human Rights, the International Commission of Jurists, and others. Suddenly, Tuesday, Hillel Neuer struck. UN Watch had spent hundreds of man-hours going over Mona’s 93,000 tweets. (That’s Neuer’s version of human rights work, folks!) Neuer found three. I am reluctant to quote the man, but let’s turn to his press release:
On July 6, 2011, Ms. Seif advocated the blowing up of pipelines exporting Egyptian gas to Israel. She praised those who commit such crimes as “heroes” and wrote “Fuck Israel”. Many have been killed and injured in violence connected to these attacks.
On November 6, 2012, Ms. Seif endorsed Al Qassam Brigades attacks on civilians. On that day, Amnesty International—another jury member—tweeted a“Demand that @netanyahu & @AlqassamBrigade stop attacks on civilians.”Ms. Seif rejected the call, writing:“you don’t ask an occupied nation to stop their “Resistance” to end violence!!! SHAME ON YOU!”
On November 20, 2012, Ms. Seif endorsed the arming of Gaza terrorist groups. On that day, Amnesty International tweeted: “Stop the madness! Share this image if you want an arms embargo on all sides #Israel #Hamas #Gaza.” The image showed innocent civilians in Israel and Gaza. Seif responded: “@amnesty & @hrw r leading a shameful campaign asking Palestinians under occupation & non stop air strikes 2 stop their resistance!”
Naturally this went viral among the Jeffrey Goldbergs and likeminded bigots, who saw a chance to attack their least favorite organizations:
By this morning, the professional liars at Breitbart.com were declaring Mona an “avowed anti-Semite.” And by afternoon the Washington Free Beacon was dubbing her a “radical Egyptian Islamist” — sickly hilarious, in that Mona is secular, comes from a family of atheistic leftists, and has been one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s most militant opponents. But the pure racism beneath all this is palpable, barely buried. You know the Arabs, terrorists all, and there is only one motive for terrorism: Islam.
Three tweets: and on that basis Neuer has launched a repellent war of defamation against a heroic opponent of dictatorship and torture. Let’s go through Neuer’s “proofs” twit by twit.
Tweet I: The pipeline. Hillel Neuer likes corruption.
Exhibit A for Neuer is this:
To start with, Hillel claims that Mona has blood on her hands: “Many have been killed and injured in violence connected to these attacks.”
Neuer is blatantly lying. There’ve been at least 16 assaults on the Sinai pipeline(s) since the Egyptian Revolution, mostly minor. No one was killed, though this January saw seven policemen wounded — more than 18 months after Mona’s tweet. The army and Interior Ministry regularly blame these on “Islamic terrorism,” mainly because that’s a sure way of bolstering their international image as guardians of order against chaos.
Facts are a good antidote to these stories. What underlies the attacks is complex and manifold. Most of Sinai’s population loathes the central government, which represses them politically and exploits them economically. Sinai’s Bedouin were in virtually open revolt even before the Revolution (facilitated by the terms of the peace treaty with Israel, which partly demilitarized the peninsula and left the task of fighting a near-insurrection to the incompetent and viciously brutal police). The instability has only grown since, as Nicolas Pelham has documented. (See an excellent article by the researcher here, and a longer report here.)
Meanwhile, Egyptians all over the country despise the pipeline because for years it shipped the national wealth to Israel, also the result of a peace treaty that an unelected dictatorship imposed. (The fact that Israel got to siphon off resources while their own government colludes in keeping Gaza’s borders closed to desperately needed aid also rankles severely.) Egypt has the 16th largest known natural-gas reserves in the world –1.6 % of the global total. Some good that does. Last year, the Petroleum Ministry announced that Egypt would now be a net gas-importing country.
The industry’s lobbyists blame the usual suspects for this disaster: political uncertainty, “labor costs,” and so on. But you can do the math. Egypt produced about 2.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2009. It consumed almost 1.6 trillion — about 70% of Egypt’s electricity is gas-generated, and gas is the main (highly subsidized) source of cooking and heating fuel. (Consumption has surely gone up since). The country exported about 650 billion cubic feet in 2009– which, if you add it all up, leaves zero room for either reserve stocks or error. For years, over 250 billion cubic feet of that went to Israel, through the pipeline, at bargain prices: probably way more, since government statistics have every incentive to undercount.
Finally, in 2012, thanks in part to attacks on the pipeline, pressure from an enraged public, and campaigning by people like Mona, Egypt cancelled the Israel gas sales and the seven-year-old contract behind them. The sales were sweetheart deals that had impoverished the Egyptian economy as a whole while enriching a Mubarak-era elite. Issandr el-Amrani explained this in detail in 2011, not long after Mona’s tweet:
Egypt was selling the gas to Eastern Mediterranean Gas (EMG) — the private firm that then sold the gas to the Israeli National Electricity Company — at around $3 per mbtu (that’s million British thermal units — the standard measurement for these things). EMG then sold it to the Israelis for around $4.5 per mbtu, pocketing a 50% profit margin for no more than the transaction costs and some of the [taxpayer-built] infrastructure between the two countries. The market price for gas … is currently around $4.40 for futures in North America, but spot markets in recent years passed the $10 per mbtu mark. Either way, there is no doubt that the price of the gas sold by Egypt to EMG was well below market prices, and that the company made an easy profit without investment of its own.
Other analysts put the prices even lower — “as low as between $0.70 and $1.50” per mbtu for Israel, with even less paid by EMG to the Egyptian government. (Naturally, the government has never revealed the price.) What’s certain is that the magnates of EMG made a killing. The deal fed corruption in both countries. Where did that 50% profit go? El-Amrani writes:
EMG is owned in large part by an Egyptian business[man], Hussein Salem, who has long been known to be a frontman for the Mubarak family (and is a former security official), and Yossi Meiman, an Israeli businessman close to the Sharon clan in Israeli politics (he owns the Israeli energy company Merhav), as well as some additional minority investors from South East Asia.
The corruption behind the Israel sales resulted in one of the major post-Mubarak trials: Hussein Salem and the former oil minister were sentenced to 15 years for stealing over $700 million through the unequal contract. (Salem is hiding in Spain. Last month, the Cassation Court ordered a retrial.)
Plenty of things came together in the pipeline: the security state, the cliques that profit from it, the “special relationship” with Israel that the dictatorship constructed in exchange for US largesse, the way elites in two countries ally for lucre and offer their middle fingers to democratic oversight. “Fuck Israel” is, from an Egyptian perspective, the mildest thing you can say in return. The contract may be history, but few people believe the government — under US pressure — won’t renew sales at some point in the future. Electricity blackouts are now routine in Egypt. Yet John Kerry and Binyamin Netanyahu are both pushing the country to sacrifice the prospect of energy self-sufficiency to the politics of “stability.” Sensible Egyptians who want economic independence and justice dream fondly of seeing the pipeline bombed.
The people of Sinai bear an extra grudge — because that serpentine eyesore symbolizes a government that ignores them except to brutalize them. Of course, any serious revolutionary in Egypt wants to understand and share the struggle of folks who have been resisting the government for years; but they don’t steer the rebels. Nobody in Sinai needed a tweet from Mona to instigate a raid on the pipeline (I doubt the attackers are on Twitter, Hillel). By now it comes as second nature.
Hossam Bahgat, an Egyptian rights activist, pointed out to Neuer that he lied about the nonexistent deaths in Sinai. But the man cannot be deterred; he corrects his lies not, neither does he explain. He promptly tweeted:
Consider that: it’s astonishingly disgusting. A former corporate lawyer, defender of Raytheon and other innocent victims of injustice, a cushioned and blinkered fool who neither has a clue nor cares about conditions in Egypt, sits in his comfortable office with a view of the Swiss Alps and dares to lecture one of the foremost campaigners against abuses by the Egyptian police that she should apologize … to the Egyptian police. Hillel Neuer claims to be a human rights activist. He’s just a contemptible, destructive little thug.
The truth, of course, is that if the pipeline carried energy to Chad, Neuer would never even notice the attacks. If Sudan or some other malevolent Muslim state were the destination, he’d applaud them. The only reason he gives a flying falafel is that the gas once went to Israel. Indeed, Neuer even vilifies Mona Seif for urging a peaceful boycott of Egyptian gas companies that sold to Israel! Till 2011, Egypt supplied 43% of Israel’s natural gas needs. What Neuer is doing is taking his revenge on Mona Seif for Egypt’s scrapping of the gas deal. That, not “terrorism,” is Neuer’s worry.
Tweets II and III. The right to resist. For Hillel Neuer, violence is … well, irresistible.
Neuer’s Exhibits B and C are this –
and this –
In November 2012, of course, a war was going on in Gaza. Seif was defending the right of Palestinians to fight back against a massive Israeli attack. The violence of Operation Pillar of Defense provides the specific context here. There’s a broader one as well.
Neuer knows nothing about the history of rights activism in Egypt, but these 280+ words summarize an old argument with Amnesty and HRW in which most of the human rights community in the country shared. (The deprecation in the middle of Tweet III is from my friend Aida Seif el-Dawla, the founder of the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, and a Human RIghts Watch honoree in 2004.) There is profound frustration at both organizations’ insistence on moral and political equivalence between resistance movements armed, in many cases, only with stones, and a massive military machine capable of obliterating opposition. There is profound frustration at what activists see as the organizations’ determination to depoliticize the conflict, to focus only on how it is fought while treating its origins as irrelevant and the demands on either side as beyond the reach of rights affirmation or critique. There is profound frustration at what they regard as a refusal to wrestle with the fact and the consequences of a 46-year occupation. There is discontent with what they interpret as a false, specious, and factitious objectivity.
Human Rights Watch, where I worked for many years, strains all its muscles to be completely objective on Israel/Palestine — an effort that has never gotten it a scintilla of credit from the militant pro-Israel side. Its releases on Israel and Palestine are the only ones in the entire organization that are routinely edited by the executive director himself. An informal arithmetic dictates that every presser or report criticizing Israel has to be accompanied by another criticizing the Palestine Authority or Hamas — or, if that isn’t possible (the PA barely retains enough authority to violate anybody’s rights) at least one of the surrounding Arab states. A mathematical approach to balance may help accountants detect embezzlement or captains keep ships afloat, but that kind of objectivity looks ridiculous in the political world, where the incessant fluidity of action disrupts the illusions of double-entry bookkeeping. (The call for an “embargo on arms” to “all sides” is an excellent example of “objectivity” that benefits one side much more than the other. As often noted during the Yugoslav civil war — when extremely well-meaning people urged that unarmed Bosnians and the Serbian army both go cold turkey on acquiring arms — a cutoff will matter much more to those who have only scant resources than to those flush with weaponry. If you want to stop that kind of fighting, an embargo alone won’t do it. It’s like the majestic equality of the law as Anatole France described it, forbidding both rich and poor to sleep under bridges.)
Whatever you think of the neighboring conflict, Egyptian activists are undoubtedly reasonable when they ask what a similar “objectivity” would have looked like in their 20-year struggle with Mubarak. Should each documented act of torture by State Security have been followed by a search for some malfeasance by human rights organizations? Do the immense power of a state and the vulnerability of a people’s movement carry the same responsibilities? At what point do you acknowledge (as Human RIghts Watch did in Egypt) that, though both sides may do wrong, one side’s core demand is right and the other’s is wrong?
Naturally, I‘m only paraphrasing ineptly here. But I can directly quote Aida Seif el-Dawla, who if anything is even more iconic among democrats in the region than Mona:
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.
That goes for the victims of torture whom Aida has served for 20 years: their wounds cry out for advocates, not impartial referees. And Aida adds: “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.”
This is absolutely different from “advocating terrorism.” It means — I take Aida to mean — understanding that those with their backs against the wall act by definition under more constraint and desperation than the wall-builders. If you want to condemn “martyrdom operations,” or stop them, you need at least to comprehend what conditions create them and what they are trying to tell. Meanwhile, Egyptian activists, who have had to resist three ruthless regimes (Mubarak, the military, and the army-supported Muslim Brotherhood) in three years, insist that human rights are empty unless supported by the concrete right of resistance to oppression. That’s a right articulated by figures as diverse as St. Thomas Aquinas and Amira Hass. You can’t have the right to the “self-determination of peoples” (expressly stated in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the major UN treaties) without recognizing that, in the 20th century and continuing into the 21st, it’s been achieved by resistance fighters rather more often than by diplomats; and even the diplomats usually needed the resistance fighters to give their arguments some heft.
Mona Seif said as much in a brief statement yesterday on her Facebook page:
I have never called for nor celebrated attacks on civilians. My position is very clear: I support people’s right to resist occupation and I resist all attempts at portraying the siege of a predominantly civilian population by the world’s 4th most powerful Army as one of ‘equivalence.’
Of course, Hillel Neuer is in a self-contradictory place here. On the one hand, he believes that Arabs don’t have the right to resist much of anything, least of all Operation Pillar of Defense. On the other hand, he sees violence as a constant temptation for the Israeli side, one so enticing that the state can hardly be expected to resist it. Violence is irresistible for both parties, but in rather different senses.
Neuer, for instance, was assiduous in defending Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara: on the grounds that Israel has a right to resist anybody anywhere, armed or no, and that killing such people is something the state apparatus must do, irresistibly. What good is a monopoly of force if the state doesn’t use it? What good is a gun if you don’t shoot somebody? Ali Abunimah summarizes Neuer’s rants far better than I can:
On 2 June 2010, three days after Israeli commandos murdered nine unarmed civilians aboard the Mavi Marmara in international waters, UN Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer justified the lethal attack on what his organization termed the “terror flotilla” based on chants some passengers aboard the flotilla had allegedly been heard making. …
Neuer has never revised nor apologized for his justifications for Israeli violence against the flotilla even after the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Inquiry … found that many of the unarmed victims had been executed by the Israeli soldiers. …
The official report also concluded that “No evidence has been provided to establish that any of the deceased were armed with lethal weapons.”
“Forensic evidence showing that most of the deceased were shot multiple times, including in the back, or at close range has not been adequately accounted for in the material presented by Israel,” the report found. And so on. The truth is that Hillel Neuer likes violence, with the armchair enthusiasm of someone who knows his friends will wield it and he’ll never have to suffer it first-hand. He loves it because it sorts the powerful from the powerless, the valued from the unwanted, the wheat from the chaff. He’s exactly the opposite of Mona Seif, who has confronted state violence here in Egypt as Neuer would never dare, and wants to see people empowered to end it. These two — the guy who holds the gun and the dissenter who wants to take it away — will never have anything in common. Only one of them has anything to do with human rights.
Neuer knows that, although he can mobilize the usual suspects to support his libels against Mona, he has few facts to back him up. So he scrounges for some Egyptian allies to give him a more — well, objective look. Unfortunately, he has only two. One, “Amr Bakly, who heads the Cairo Liberal Forum, tweeted: ‘The Martin Ennals Award is not for terrorist supporters.'” The Cairo Liberal Forum is a small circle of “free market” advocates in Egypt whose irrelevance to the Egyptian revolutionary scene can be seen in their Facebook page: it’s almost wholly in English and for foreign consumption. Bakly has neither constituency nor credibility.
Neuer’s other enlistee, Maikel Nabil, is a more complicated story. Nabil, an advocate for conscientious objection and against military conscription, suffered a hellish year in jail for “insulting” the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in 2011. I’ve written about him before, and I travelled to the military prosecutor’s office to show support at one of his hearings last December. Nabil rightly felt angry that his case drew less attention than the jailing of other activists, including Alaa Abd el Fattah, Mona Seif’s celebrated brother. Only a handful of people stood outside the grim army building when I went there for him, as opposed to hundreds who regularly turned out for Alaa. But Nabil has let anger and jealousy corrupt his judgment. His condemnation of Mona Seif is more about his resentment of Alaa than over anything she tweeted; it’s particularly sad because Mona spoke out strongly for him while he languished in prison. It’s reprehensible of Neuer to exploit Nabil’s rage in this divisive way. Since his release, Nabil has left Egypt, his reputation more and more marginalized there. (UN Watch organized an ill-advised junket to Israel for him last year.) Like Bakly, he has little constituency in Egypt, and it’s mendacious of Neuer to pretend otherwise.
I don’t expect Hillel Neuer to know the difference between real human rights activists and ersatz ones: he’s so emphatically the latter. Neuer — despite grandly inflating himself into a rights defender and UN Watch into a rights organization — has simply never done human rights work. He sits in his office and peruses the tweets of his enemies. Mona Seif, meanwhile, has worked for the imprisoned, spoken to their families, documented their cases, confronted the oppressors face to face. Three successive repressive regimes have found common ground in hating her. There’s hardly a catastrophe in Cairo they don’t blame her for. A fire at pro-military candidate Ahmed Shafiq’s offices? Mona was lighting matches in a car nearby! A crowd attacks the HQ of the Muslim Brotherhood, Shafiq’s opponents? Mona planned it all!
The odd thing is that, accusing her absurdly of “terrorism,” Hillel Neuer mimics the rhetoric and paranoia of the Egyptian powers that be. I doubt he’d be happy to hear he imitates the Muslim Brotherhood. But apologists for injustice and flacks for authority are always alike, no matter their disparate beliefs.
In thinking of Mona, I always remember her father. Ahmed Seif el-Islam is one of the most respected rights activists and constitutional lawyers in Egypt. He has inspired me. He also taught me a valuable lesson.
I saw the intensity of Seif’s dedication back in 2003, when I was researching for Human Rights Watch. Demonstrations against the US invasion of Iraq convulsed Cairo, and the Mubarak government lashed back by arresting and torturing over a thousand students and leftist activists. Seif was then the head of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, the country’s premier human rights litigation group. He spent more than a week without leaving his office for home, barely sleeping, barefoot and unshaven: collecting information, coordinating responses, making sure that lawyers stayed at every jail and every hearing, that every act of brutality was recorded. All the while, he kept a small bag packed behind the desk in anticipation of his own arrest. Seif, a veteran of Egypt’s political prisons and concentration camps, lived on a shoestring — I don’t think he paid himself more than a few hundred pounds a month as director — and never stopped working.
I had first met Seif in 2001, when I was on the staff of a different organization — IGLHRC, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission — and came to Egypt for the trial of 52 men arrested for homosexuality in a massive police raid. The Hisham Mubarak Centre had been one of the first groups to offer the men legal help, despite the case’s unpopularity. I wanted to thank Seif for his courage. He brushed away my compliments and asked, politely: “Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”
I hesitated; IGLHRC had nothing of the kind. “I want you to know,” Seif said, “that we have taken a position on this case because we believe in universal human rights, however much others may despise us for it. I don’t expect anything less from other groups. Therefore please tell me. Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”
That was the lesson.
There are ample reasons to dislike human rights as a profession. As a set of principles, though, it has one great virtue: it forces you to think beyond the walls of self, and face the frightening differences and similarity of others. The premise of universality (much misunderstood) is that what others do and suffer cannot be entirely divorced from you. If you ask an Egyptian to talk about your concern, they can ask you to remember theirs; and, with that moral sophistication I find characteristic of Egyptian thinking, they may require you to consider not Egypt, but Palestine, and the suffering next door. (It’s typical that the great mobilizing issue for Egypt’s anti-government activists from 2001-2005 was not just the Mubarak regime’s domestic criminality, but its callousness about the Palestinian crisis across the border.) IGLHRC never did develop a position on Palestine; but in a discussion about it, years later, one board member plaintively wailed: “Why do we have to be a human rights organization? Why can’t we just be a gay organization, and ignore this stuff?” He had it right, actually. Once you start speaking the language of rights, an inexorable logic compels you to connect, connect.
Mona, like her father, knows this. In her defiant statement, she wrote:
One of the rights that we, the young people of Egypt, have succeeded in seizing is the right to insult our own government and to insult anyone whose policies are bad for our people. We insist on this right.
It’s about freedom to offend, but also freedom to choose your solidarities. People who don’t want Egyptians feeling an affinity with Palestinians should just ask for the Revolution to be rolled back, to a point where all politics can be state-dictated and all opinions served prefab. Hillel would like that. Mona, no.
I hope the 10 human rights organizations that decide the Ennals award have Mona’s consistency and courage. I hope they understand universality enough not to cower away from the connections. No issue awakens the pusillanimity of rights groups like Israel and Palestine; no other subject can turn self-vaunted Voltaires quite so quickly into quaking cowards. Ken Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, sent an ominous signal last night in an email to the New York Times.
HRW staff nominated two human rights defenders, and one made it through as a finalist (not Mona). Voting on the finalists will take place in October in a secret ballot by the 10 human rights groups on the jury, including HRW. … HRW never takes a position on whether a country or rebel group should go to war or engage in “resistance.” Our focus is on how wars are fought, and we oppose any deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on civilians. I haven’t seen anything indicating that by “resistance” Mona means attacking civilians.
That’s all quite objective and proper, but note the parenthesis. We didn’t nominate Mona Seif (though she’s worked closely with and assisted Human Rights Watch in Egypt); it’s not HRW’s fault! This is how human rights organizations sell someone down the river.
Ken should stiffen his spine. Some Egyptian spirit would be a good tonic for the groups that will make this decision. Shame on them if they let the liars sway them.