Ahmed Seif al-Islam died one year ago today. I had meant to write something then, but I didn’t have the heart. No one had much heart in those weeks. I went to his wake at the Omar Makram Mosque three days later. Evening, like fusty crape, had settled on Midan Tahrir, five minutes’ walk away. It felt evident that this was also a funeral for the revolution, which had started there and dragged itself this short distance in four years, to die: a valediction not just to a person but to a history of dreams. Thousands of people filed through the small mosque; all of Egypt’s Left was there, but also students and graffiti artists and football fans and people who had only heard, but knew the significance of, his name. His daughter Mona received them, exhausted, by the door. His son Alaa had been released from prison to participate; he was beside her, wearing his prison whites, a garment which in Egypt always makes me think of pilgrimage. Inside, people looked down and said little, to the ebb and swell of the recited Qur’an. Hamdeen Sabbahi — the twice-failed presidential candidate whom Sisi had crushed in a rigged vote two months before — stood against the wall, with a tiny remaining entourage. His chin jutted; he was posing for invisible cameras; he reminded me how, even under dictatorships, politicians acquire the kinds of ego cultivated in our celebrity-sated media democracies, a self-regard that failure cannot shatter. (I’d learned this before in Egypt: in 2003 I met with Ayman Nour, a daring opposition MP who had the privilege two years of later of being similarly crushed by Mubarak in another gimcrack ballot. We were supposed to talk about some arrested demonstrators — he was their lawyer; instead he spent two hours talking about himself.) But no one paid attention to Sabbahi; the flashbulbs had flown like swallows. He’s a tall mountain of a man, but he seemed like hollow papier-mâché compared to Seif’s missing figure, friable and insignificant against the absent corpse.
You would have thought then, with the new dictator rigidly ensconced, that things couldn’t get any worse. But they did, as the autumn darkened. By October several of the most famous human rights activists in Egypt had to leave the country. Others were being jailed on pretexts, or banned from travel. I remember the months from then through January as a kind of delirium, when everybody I know — rights workers, journalists, café owners, gay men — believed we were all going to be arrested at any time. Things alleviated a little in the spring: perhaps because the state felt it had intimidated everyone enough, perhaps because the fear had simply become second nature; in any case, those are more or less the same thing. In fact, the methods of repression only shifted. People were vanishing. Security forces disappeared more than 150 between April and June, pulling them off the streets or from their homes and dropping them (without trial, without hearing, without lawyers, without law) into the country’s immense Gulag. Sometimes they reappear, months later, in a security court; sometimes what surfaces are the corpses. There are death squads now. Torture used to happen behind bolted shutters in police stations; these days security forces will torture and kill you in your own house. Death does home delivery. The government wages a widening war against burgeoning insurgencies, and the insurgencies bomb and kidnap with spectacular impunity in the heart of Cairo. I remember lines by Edwin Muir:
We have seen
Good men made evil wrangling with the evil,
Straight minds grown crooked fighting crooked minds.
Our peace betrayed us; we betrayed our peace.
Look at it well. This was the good town once.
That is Egypt in the summer of 2015.
All this makes thinking about Seif the more painful, if the more necessary, a year on. I need to remember him, to make sense of everything since. The obituaries and memorials back then recited the key facts. As a young Communist activist, he faced the first of many arrests in 1972 (at the age of 21). In 1983, the Mubarak dictatorship jailed him for five years. They tortured him: “I was turned into a wreck of a human being,” he told Human Rights Watch. “A small example: each time I had a meal of torture, there was the sound of a bell. Since then, whenever I hear the sound of a bell my body shakes.” Finally freed, he made the hard choice to change the methods of his dissent. He became a lawyer, defending everyone from labor activists to accused apostates. In 1999, he helped found the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, the main human-rights legal defense group in Egypt. He practiced an activism that transcended the usual insularity of the left. He worked with religious fundamentalists, with accused “terrorists,” with religious minorities, with liberals of all stripes, with LGBT people, with feminists. He constantly looked for common ground between disparate but cognate ways of resisting state control, digging for a deep politics where joint action could begin: in similar visions of social transformation, in congruent loathing of arbitrary power, in shared experiences of torture.
And then there is his family: his wife Laila Soueif, a mathematician and relentless political activist; his daughter Mona Seif, who has spent almost five years fighting military persecution of civilians; his son Alaa Abd el Fattah and his daughter Sanaa Seif, both now serving prison terms for protesting “illegally” — jailed, they could not join him at his deathbed. And his sister-in-law Ahdaf Soueif, a novelist and activist (who chronicled some of the family history in her early fiction, In the Eye of the Sun); and her son Omar Robert Hamilton, who writes about the revolution, in Cairo and London. There’s something almost theatrical about a family life lived so intensely in public action; acting and activism are akin, after all, except the second comes without a script. At times they remind me, not exactly of the Barrymores, but of Ferber and Kaufman’s play about the Barrymores, The Royal Family — if it were somehow transported to the world of 1984. One striking thing (and one level, I suppose, of defying the surveillance state) is that, while they live in public, their private lives and loyalties are intensely rich and full. If you raise your kids to be rebels, almost always they eventually rebel against you. I’m sure Seif’s children had their moments of rebellion, but the other striking thing is that their father’s legacy is in their bones and they are unceasingly faithful to it. This is what happens when the political is also personal: a turn on a feminist adage that bears remembering.
I didn’t know him as well as many others. The best tribute I can pay now is to remember some things I learned from him.
The first dates to the first time I met him, in November 2001. Most Western obituaries of Seif stressed how, staring down political and social risk, he provided lawyers for men arrested for homosexuality in the famous Queen Boat case and the years after. Seif himself never made much of this: certainly not because he was embarrassed, nor because he thought it unimportant (he knew how important it was to the victims) but because it did not strike him as extraordinary. At the time, I was program director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). I came to Egypt that month for the verdict in the Queen Boat trial; Hossam Bahgat (then a 22-year-old university student) and I went to meet Seif in his office. I’d e-mailed and phoned him often from the US, but I wanted to thank him personally. (This was, it strikes me, one of the first times that Hossam had sat down face-to-face with Seif as well; they later became firm allies.)
I launched a little speech of gratitude for a difficult and dangerous decision. Seif listened, sucking his teeth ruminatively. This he often did. The mannerism seemed to have a deeper meaning, a way of coming to terms with an unpleasantness buried in life’s innards: as though the world had just given him something bitter to eat, a cosmic rotten quince or a transcendental grapefruit soaked in alum, and rather than spit it out, he was trying to decide what this implied about the universe. After I’d rambled on a while, he cut me off. “Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”
I was startled. I stammered, we didn’t exactly, we were an LGBT group, but we understood the (fill in some words).
“No, no,” he said. “Really, I just want to know simply. Does your organization take a position on the freedom of Palestine?”
Well, not quite, it was not entirely within our mandate, but —
Seif’s lips set. “I want you to know 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?”
The next time I saw Seif, I was working for Human RIghts Watch — which did have a position on Palestine and Israel, though not one he respected. But he wasn’t looking for a final answer. He wanted me to understand that I was a political actor whether I wanted to be or not, and he was going to treat me as one. He wanted me to understand that “universality” is a choice and practice, not a generalization. Principles weren’t the opposite of the quid-pro-quo he posited; it was principle that demanded we both widen our horizons. For Seif human rights weren’t Platonic ideas glassed in some abstract realm; they took meaning in the concrete world through politics. They are absolute values we work out in real life. Their reach becomes universal through the labor of arguing out alliances to make them so. Seif’s turn to the law hadn’t changed his basic beliefs at all. He worked for human rights, but he was a revolutionary, and he thought only radical change could make them real. And only through the give-and-take of politics would change begin.
This political precision also affected his attitude toward lawyering. Seif was one of the finest constitutional lawyers in Egypt. This meant he was expert at finding cracks in a document crafted for repression. He had little of the craven fetishism with which American lawyers approach their own constitution, hammered out in slavery times. He knew legal argument was a means to an end, and the end was change, not the reification of a text. “Do you believe in this constitution?” I asked him when we were talking about Egypt’s emergency laws. He smiled. “I believe in the tools we have.”
A second memory. I saw Seif in Cairo in the summer of 2011, when the military government — the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — was deepening its grip on the country. I sat in on a meeting Amnesty International organized for human rights activists. There were some 25 people at the table, and we went through a round of introductions and saying what our “core concerns” were. Seif looked half-asleep. When his turn came, he mumbled something almost inaudible. Then suddenly, as if someone had stuck an electric wire in his spine, he jolted to life. “I will NOT,” he shouted thunderously — slap of palm on table — “accept that the American government, or Amnesty, or anyone will tell me that I need to tolerate military dictatorship in order to avoid a takeover by Islamist people. I will not accept such false choices. Anyone who wants to dictate that should leave this country alone.” I don’t remember the rest of what he said, but I don’t remember a word of what anyone else said either.
And that was a second lesson about politics. You may compromise on strategies or goals. You don’t have to compromise on saying what you believe. Seif would sit with almost anybody on a panel if it advanced a just, joint cause — Salafi preachers or American human rights organizations; but not if he had to mince his words, or lose his capacity to be critical. He would sign an open letter sponsored by Human Rights Watch one day, and start an open letter blasting Human Rights Watch (usually about Palestine) the next. Coalitions don’t mean abandoning all confrontation.
A third lesson. While I lived in Cairo for a few months in 2003, demonstrations against the US invasion of Iraq wracked the city. The Mubarak government arrested over a thousand students and activists when the war broke out, torturing most of them. My work for Human Rights Watch was to document this; and so for hours every day I camped at Seif’s chaotic desk in the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, where, as I’ve written before, “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.”
Everybody who had been demonstrating, and their families, knew Seif. This was true of Salafis, of the Muslim Brotherhood, of Nasserists, of every political complexion. The Hisham Mubarak Centre was on the sixth floor of a leprous Belle Époque building in Souq el-Tawfiqiyya downtown; the offices branched off from a common room with blue chipped-plaster walls, once a pasha’s airy and erudite salon, and that vaulted space was always available for any group to meet, anybody to hold a press conference or a debate, any agitators to plan their agitation. Seif had turned his headquarters into the crossroads of dissent in Cairo. I remember, during those desperate days, interviewing a hijabi woman of about twenty, a college student who’d been active in the demonstrations. One night at her parents’ home, she’d received a phone call from Amn el-Dawla, from State Security cloaked in all its terror, demanding she come in the next day for interrogation. I asked her what she did. She said, “I called Seif, of course.”
But my point, the lesson, is: never did Seif make himself central. He had no interest in advertising himself or “leading.” His work was about others, not himself. (One detail is telling. Seif taught his lawyers what he called the “bag rule,” which sounds like a Mafia custom but was quite simple. He ordered them never to neglect to look at the bags of documents that poor and working-class Egyptians carry around with them when they have a dispute with the government: scraps of forms and records that often they can’t even read. I’ve seen these bags so often. They don’t just matter because they might contain overlooked evidence of malfeasance. They matter because they matter to the people. To immerse yourself in their experience of their wrongs is to show them the respect they demand.)
The idea of having his role publicized would have appalled Seif. True, he lived a public life; he was always on a stage, in some sense, but he was never any kind of star. The picture at top is almost the only posed photograph of him I’ve ever seen. It’s from a photo shoot that Human Rights Watch hired Platon to do in Cairo in 2011, a rather silly series of images of key figures from Egypt’s revolution. You can see the handlers couldn’t talk Seif into changing the moth-eaten sweater he usually wore, which is why the picture is in such close-up. You can also see he looks — well, not uncomfortable, just resigned, as if he’s finally realized this is the firing squad, and you’ve got to face it. When the ordeal was over, he must have felt like Dostoevsky getting his unexpected reprieve from execution: Now, I have time to write.
The danger in dictatorship is not only its technology of repression. It’s the dictatorial personality it imbues — not just in its servants, but in those who fight it. Human rights activists, because so hard to criticize, are if anything especially vulnerable to this warping of ego and moral sense. Seif had none of it. Our strange postmodern confusion of celebrity and power, so insidiously tempting to so many activists, was alien to him. It is impossible to imagine him talking about himself to strangers; he repelled flashbulbs as if he’d sprayed himself against them. It’s impossible to imagine him on the cover of a magazine, or on a red carpet with Brad and Angelina, or Menna Shalabi or Khaled Abol Naga or anybody. It’s just as impossible to imagine him participating in the games of power, holding a press conference with a UN ambassador or a foreign minister, or basking in the shared, pale light of some ambitious politician. Even the pictures wouldn’t have come out. The power of his presence would have exposed those beings as incorporeal fictions — vampires, creatures who don’t show up on photographic film.
Alaa, Seif’s son, is serving a five-year sentence, for joining a protest in November 2013. Recently his mother interviewed him during a visit to Tora prison; she memorized his answers and passed them to a reporter when she emerged. You can read the exchange in Arabic and English. Because Alaa seems almost forgotten in the West now, I will quote at length. He said:
Prisons in our country are the embodiment of “violation.” For me personally I’ll quote my father when, shortly before he died, he said that my conditions were “a lot better than others’ and, on the whole, bearable in comparison with what the political prisoners from the Islamist movement suffer.”
The authorities are being totally intransigent, though, in forbidding me books. Not just political books — any books from outside prison, including books published by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. … They’re trying to isolate me, intellectually as well as physically, from the community. …
I was in court recently [for an “insulting the judiciary” case, another charge he still faces] and they brought in Magdi Qurqur [from the Brotherhood-sympathizing National Alliance Supporting Legitimacy] by mistake. He was in really bad shape. He told me that the day the prosecutor general was assassinated, prison officers went into the cells in Tora’s maximum security prison and stripped them of everything — prisoners’ clothes and bathroom stuff, but also medicines, even medicines which are really dangerous to stop suddenly, like for chronic heart problems, for example.
There’s no hope at all in reforming the Egyptian state or any of its institutions, including the presidency. These institutions and their heads deserve a revolution….[But] there is no longer one revolution that would let us to talk about “its forces.” Now we have multiple revolutions, and we need to think carefully about what this means.
Seif was Alaa’s defense attorney, until he became too sick to go on. At a press conference about his son’s trial eight months before he died, he said: “I wanted you to inherit a democratic society that guards your rights, my son. But instead I passed on the prison cell that held me, and now holds you.”
Ahmed Seif al-Islam speaking about his son’s trial at a January 2014 press conference
But that, of course, isn’t all. His legacy rests in a myriad small lessons — about politics, consistency, personal integrity, and more. These bear the seeds of multiple revolutions: some infinitesimally small at first, happening only in the circle of a few friends who decide on freedom, but with the capacity to grow. Egypt now is divided starkly into light and darkness. And these are dark times. “If it is the function of the public realm is to throw light on the affairs of men,” Hannah Arendt declared,
by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by “credibility gaps” and “invisible govenrment,” by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that, under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality.
Against this stands the illumination that “may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and in their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on this earth.”
These days I sit at home; I struggle against the heat; I think of past and future; and I read Brecht. Brecht wrote:
Truly I live in dark times!
Frank speech is naïve. A smooth forehead
Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet heard
The terrible news.
What kind of times are these, when
To talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?
— An die Nachgeborenen (To Those Born Later), 194o
And he also wrote:
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
— Motto to the Svendborger Gedichte (Svendborg Poems), 1940