Peter Tatchell begs Hillel Neuer to sue me

Catherine Brennan with iconic refutation of gender theory. Don't worry: There are dicks everywhere.

Catherine Brennan with iconic refutation of gender theory. Don’t worry: There are dicks everywhere.

About six weeks ago, Samantha Allen, a trans* activist and scholar in the US, published an incisive piece at Jacobin — a site I always find thought-provoking.

I’m an endangered species. Nearly half of people like me attempt suicide. Hundreds of us are murdered annually and, worldwide, that rate is only increasing. Those of us who have a job and a place to live often lose them both; too many of us can’t acquire either in the first place. What I am is a transgender woman, one of the lucky ones.

I’m lucky because I’m white, and because I have employment, housing and health insurance. I can’t get too comfortable, though, because every few days, a tragic headline reminds me of how fragile we are as a group: “Anti-Transgender Bathroom Bill Passes,” “Transgender Inmates At Risk,” “Transgender Woman Shot.”

What she runs up against is that it’s perfectly easy to be a victim in the US media, but once you start defending your life instead of letting it be described, all hell breaks loose.

While the article deals with many threats to trans* existence, her focus is not physical violence but political erasure. There’s still a strong phalanx of Western feminists who hate the idea of “gender.” They believe in woman as biological essence: they reject the notion that sexual roles are produced by social forces, and instead trace social repression back to women’s genital-given ability to make babies (which patriarchy needs to harness to keep going). This is at least a defensible idea, but one of its adherents’ traits is a deep loathing of transgender people, who embody, if that’s the right word, all the gendery blurriness they abjure and abhor. To them, trans* women are deluded men who want to weasel into women’s spaces, at best as spies, at worst as rapists.

Ideas exist not in an ideal but in the real world, and one way to judge them is not by their consistency with other ideas but by whether they have victims. By that standard, an idea that breeds hatred — in this case, against an already vulnerable group of people — has its problems.

Allen points to Catherine Brennan, a Maryland attorney, as an example among many. Brennan is fairly notorious. In 2011, she famously co-wrote a letter to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, opposing legal protections for gender identity, and asking the UN to condemn such anti-discrimination laws in the US. The appeal came at a particularly crucial time in the UN’s negotiations over sexual orientation and gender identity. As Allen says, Brennan “effectively allied herself with those on the Right who viciously deter trans* folks’ attempts to secure employment, housing and safe public spaces.” Brennan also descends to more individual forms of opposition. Recently, for instance, she posted online the court docket information of a trans* woman who was petitioning to change her legal gender, and encouraged others to ask the judge to quash the petition. Last year, she sent a trans* activist a weird but instructive picture:

Cathy Brennan tweet
Allen’s essay was mainly a positive call for the left to take trans* issues seriously. But Brennan, a litigious soul, particularly disliked the paragraph about her. She didn’t try to refute any of the points. She threatened to sue the publisher.

Brennan’s action was in obvious imitation of Peter Tatchell, who has threatened various people in the past — publishers both small and large, and, on at least two separate occasions, employers — with lawsuits in response to criticism of his work and tactics. (Some accounts of Tatchell’s attempts at censorship can be found here, and here, and here, and here.) Until it was partially reformed this year (after a number of researchers and scholars had been hauled into court, accused of defamation for disagreeing with others), England’s libel law was among the worst threats to free speech in any soi-disant democracy. As the UK’s Libel Reform Campaign (a joint project of Index on Censorship, PEN, and Sense about Science) said, the law was “chilling global freedom of expression, by silencing writers, journalists, bloggers and human rights activists in the UK and around the world.” It was Peter’s favorite weapon. Unsurprisingly, libel reform is perhaps the one widely popular campaign in Great Britain, short of the EDL, that Tatchell never endorsed.

Some activists oppose power instinctively. Some activists instinctively love power. There’s a long history, for example, of feminists who honorably oppose patriarchy turning to the patriarchal State, not just for protection but to silence their opponents. Real activism does not succeed through seizing power, though, but by transforming it. Its progress is impossible without critique and disagreement. When you shut down criticism by other activists and movements, and police your way into a specious authority beyond argument, you lose your claims to credibility. You also poison the atmosphere of diversity and debate, the only air that true thought and politics can possibly breathe.

I thought of this recently, after I wrote my own criticism of Hillel Neuer and his baltageya at “UN Watch.” Neuer’s group is not, in any proper sense, a human rights organization. Instead, they spend their time attacking human rights activists, mostly for insufficient adulation of Israel. In this case, Neuer had launched an assault on the reputation of Mona Seif, a heroic campaigner against military rule and military trials in Egypt. I pointed out the indefensibility and falsehood of Neuer’s allegations, and his obvious political motivations.

I got a number of poison-pen letters, but at the bottom of one threat there was … Peter Tatchell. Literally. The following e-mail, from one S. Brodsky, offered the usual rhetoric:

Brodsky email May 20
Fine. (It’s the Southern Poverty Law Center, by the way.) This came at the top of a chain of forwarded emails urging people to “do something” about me, which the sender apparently forgot to delete. But when I scrolled to the bottom, through archaeological layers of abuse, I discovered that the originating email came from Peter Tatchell, imploring Hillel Neuer to sue me.

hillel neuer tatchell 1Hmm.

It may be true that I’m “impervious to criticism,” at least in comparison to Peter, who takes note of every mild demurral for future retaliation. I don’t think it’s possible to do human rights activism unless you have a thicker skin than that. On the “appeals to conscience,” though, I am in doubt. I have checked with my conscience, which is in session 24/7 with special judges on hand for night court, and it has no record of such a case being referred to its jurisdiction by a lower tribunal. I’d encourage Peter to pursue this recourse, and submit his documents as soon as possible. My conscience can’t wait to see what the appeal would look like.

Night court of conscience: Tell it to the judge

Night court of conscience: Tell it to the judge

This all serves as a reminder that the full documentation of Peter’s attempts to go after me deserves to be online, and I really should post it for the connoisseurs.

For the rest: it’s amusing to find Peter as the fairy, or toad, at the bottom of this particular e-mail garden. Yet it’s also sad. Peter’s been harassing me in his obsessed fashion — on occasion directly, more often through various minions — for years. Some weeks ago I found he turns up in my followers’ list on Facebook, as does the beautifully named “Patrick Lyster-Todd, Lieutenant Commander Royal Navy,” who is or was the “Acting General Manager” of the “Peter Tatchell Foundation.” My Facebook page is open to the world, you can check it any time, but Peter and his employees want to make sure they don’t miss anything I might post that could be employed against me. Lyster-Todd, whom I am afraid I can only envision as an evil twin of Captain Crunch, wrote a long email two years ago to Harvard Law School to complain that I worked there:

Lieutenant Commander Patrick Lyster-Todd, Royal Navy

Lieutenant Commander Patrick Lyster-Todd, Royal Navy

Dear Dean,

I am the acting General Manager for the Peter Tatchell Foundation, a small human rights non profit organisation in London, United Kingdom. …

May I ask – openly, honestly and without any hidden agenda – whether Mr Long is entitled to sign himself as a Visiting Fellow of the School and, if so, whether it can therefore be inferred that he [speaks]  with the tacit or other support or authority of the Harvard Law School? I cannot believe that you would wish this. …

Sincerely,

Patrick Lyster-Todd
Lietenant Commander Royal Navy
General Manager
Peter Tatchell Foundation (PTF)
Tel: 020 3397 2190 Email: patrick@petertatchellfoundation.org
Web: www.petertatchellfoundation.org

Harvard told him to climb back in his yellow submarine. Nonetheless, the whole thing suggests a degree of drivenness in Peter’s pursuit of me that pushes at the pale of sense.

When Peter reaches out to UN Watch, though, it’s not funny. For him to embrace that band of Likudnik thugs puts the lie, at a minimum, to his intermittent professions of support for Palestine. As I said above: bad ideas have victims. Tatchell allies himself with a State-sponsored enemy of the United Nations’s rights work, of Israeli civil society, of Palestinian aspirations for freedom, and of genuine human rights heroes like Mona Seif in Egypt; and what can you say? He reveals that his carefully cultivated idea of himself doesn’t care about the consequences. No rights activist should prefer Hillel Neuer to Mona Seif and the Egyptian revolutionaries. But Peter’s amour-propre is prepared to inflict collateral damage on anybody who gets in its way.

Peter obviously would like to scare me himself, and I doubt that his lack of funds is a deterrent; surely the “Peter Tatchell Foundation” could contribute its resources to a rights-advancing lawsuit. The reasons, rather, are twofold: my lack of funds, and the fact that he’d rather move furtively and through figureheads than in the open. But if he’s willing to come out, I can certainly help. I don’t take Peter seriously; most human rights activists don’t. He is primarily concerned with self-promotion. His advertisements for himself exploit the work of serious grassroots activists in the global South while disregarding their agency — and sometimes callously endangering their safety. For the most part, he puts out a stream of press releases with endless quotations from himself. These do little to dislodge injustice, but they do qualify him as what the French call, expressively, a pisseur de copie. Finally, like many so absorbed with themselves, he is deeply insecure; he tends the delicate flower of his minor celebrity with an intemperate rage at those who question or critique him. He’ll take down real activists like Mona Seif and others if they are in the line of fire.

Now, Peter: Please sue. I look forward to hearing from you. Hillel Neuer (and Catherine Brennan) will have to wait in line.

Meanwhile, there are constructive lessons. It remains important to defang these people who are too absorbed by the vicissitudes of reputation to address criticism or participate in discourse. You can learn about the UK Libel Reform Campaign (which still has work to do) here. To support Jacobin Magazine, and the principles of independent journalism, please donate to their legal defense fund here.

A clarification: What international human rights activists really do

Image

International human rights activists as they see themselves

In my first post on Mona Seif, I objected to an e-mail that Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, sent to the New York Times. Specifically, he explained to the newspaper that “HRW staff nominated two human rights defenders” for the Martin Ennals award, “and one made it through as a finalist (not Mona).”

Now, I want to be clear about what my objection was, because it is bruited that various people both outside HRW and in have misunderstood it.  It’s not that HRW didn’t nominate Mona; that’s fine; there are other worthy candidates; it’s nobody’s business but the participating groups. Nor did I mean that HRW staff in general failed to do right by Mona — the HRW office in Egypt quite rightly regards her as one of their most valuable allies; they rely on her in their own work, and they support her and No to Military Trials if and whenever they can. The issue is that pesky little parenthesis. Ken is an admirably smart and thorough person for whom no punctuation lacks a purpose. He went out of his way to reveal that HRW didn’t nominate Mona, in a way that could only damage her case at a moment when she’s under unjustified attack, while preserving (or at least trying to preserve) Human Rights Watch from criticism. In my book, this is called selling your friends down the river.

I have a dim memory of the procedures for the Martin Ennals award — HRW directors were periodically solicited to suggest nominees. And my understanding is that the 10 groups participating are supposed to keep who-nominated-whom confidential, just as the ultimate balloting is secret. That’s certainly how it should be. So that Ken in letting this slip seems to violate the process, in spirit if not in letter.

More importantly, though, international human rights organizations have an obligation to defend their allied organizations and activists on the ground when they face such vicious attack: not just on principle, but because it’s those activists who make their work possible. There’s a macho movie-style illusion that international groups much too willingly promote: the heroic myth that their agents all put on combat boots and stride boldly solo into depopulated war zones, to extract Stories from Victims and be their Voices without help or mediation. This is هراء, which is one way of saying bullshit. I did research for Human RIghts Watch for years in Egypt as well as many other countries — I was HRW’s sole Egypt reseacher during several tense months in 2003 — and I know perfectly well that the organization couldn’t get one tweet’s worth of information about human rights violations anywhere between Alexandria and Aswan (or anywhere between the Arctic and Antarctic) unless activists like Mona, Aida Seif el-Dawla, Hossam Bahgat, and countless less-paid others were on their side, made the contacts, did the outreach and often all the work, and frequently provided the documentation for them. International organizations would wither up and die, or become (as they often threaten to become) completely useless, without this support.

Grassroots and domestic defenders enable Human Rights Watch to perform its vital and reputable services. But one serious problem HRW has — we in the LGBT Rights Program fought against this for years — is a belief at the highest levels that it’s the other way around: that HRW makes the work of other human rights defenders possible.

That’s wrong. Until it gets this straight, HRW will continue to embarrass itself, in ways like the New York Times article.

Image

International human rights activists as they are

Some more terrorists for Hillel Neuer to hand over to the authorities: Myself included

I’ll start with this tweet.

Maikel Nabil #FuckSCAF jpgThis was one of the first things Maikel Nabil Sanad tweeted after release from almost a year in military jails. Maikel Nabil is a heroic campaigner against the Egyptian military. He’s also, unfortunately, one of the (only) two local informants that Hillel Neuer and UN Watch have tried to enlist to lend fake credibility for their smears against human rights activist Mona Seif.

Mona Seif using mobile phone to trigger bomb: © Matthew Cassel, justimage.org

Mona Seif, probably using mobile phone to trigger bomb: © Matthew Cassel, justimage.org

One of Hillel Neuer’s points is that the Twitter hashtag #FuckIsrael, used on occasion by Seif and many other Egyptian twitterati, is an incitement to hate and terror. “Tweets for terror,” they call these. Or as one of Neuer’s media mouthpieces writes, “Seif’s Twitter account reveals a propensity to express the most vulgar kind of hatred towards Israel …. in terms of how she expresses herself: #F[expletive deleted]Israel is a popular choice.” The “anti-Israel, pro-terror woman”‘s messages “advocate terrorism against the Jewish State.”

Applying the F-word to institutions, then, is — like the use of “insh’allah” and other clever code — a mark of terrorist sympathies. So it’s hard to account for Maikel Nabil’s tweet above, which urges fucking the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF): the military junta that guarded order against the forces of Islam, darkness, and democracy during the post-Mubarak interregnum. Is Maikel Nabil a vulgar anti-government terrorist? Moreover, the tweet reads: “Stand in solidarity with Samira Ibrahim, tomorrow 11am. You’re needed so that crimes won’t be repeated.” Samira Ibrahim had the courage to press a case against the military for subjecting her and other women to virginity tests. She’s also, however, distinctly on Hillel Neuer’s bad side.

Maybe Neuer shouldn’t have been so quick to exploit Maikel. I wrote to Hillel Neuer and others tonight, asking just this question:

Neuer 1 copy

So far, no reply.

Unquestionably the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces would think that tweet was terrorism. They jailed Maikel Nabil and almost killed him for “insulting the military,” after all. And this tweet is perfectly consistent with Maikel’s record of standing up to military rule. But — although I admire Maikel Nabil as a hero for his struggle against forced conscription, and loathe the idea of him returning to prison — it does seem as though Hillel should realize the magnitude of his crimes. As Neuer would undoubtedly remind us, SCAF kept the peace treaty with Israel going. Therefore this kind of obscene opposition only flouts peace and encourages terrorist violence. Maikel is outside Egypt now, but probably Hillel Neuer, that supporter of the powers that be, will arrange with European authorities for his extradition.

I do not want to single out Maikel Nabil. Alas, I have to tell Hillel that there was a lot of #FuckSCAF terror-tweeting going around, among Maikel Nabil’s supporters. Mona Seif called for some SCAF-fucking in Maikel’s defense, as you’d expect from a pro-terror woman:

FUCK SCAF MONA SEIF copy

But so did other activists like Mona Eltahawy and Gigi Ibrahim:

FREE MAIKEL FUCK SCAF copy

Was everybody around Maikel promoting vulgar anti-government violence? The question becomes: Why is Hillel Neuer palling around with terrorists?

People in Egypt terror-tweet against the government for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes they’re upset because the government is shooting at them.

FuckSCAF 1 copy

Sometimes they’re irrationally irritated because they’ve seen other protesters murdered.

FuckSCAF2 copy

Sometimes they take their friends’ problems far too personally.

FuckSCAF 3 copyEven Palestinians terror-tweet across the border, in sympathy.

FUCKSCAF 4 copyMany things can lead people into terror-tweeting. The point isn’t to waste time examining causes, though. The point is to respond to terror-tweeting firmly, with unequivocal force. Hillel Neuer can surely persuade SCAF to deal with these people (except for the last one: he may be Israel’s problem).

The crisis we face is bigger, though.

Hillel Neuer’s main work as a human rights activist is trawling through his enemies’ tweets and public and private statements, looking for criticisms of Israel. But in his singleminded search, he’s missing a lot of other terrorist obscenities. How would Hillel Neuer respond to things like this — people so offended by “human rights abuses” that their blind anger draws them into terror-tweeting?

Fucksaudi copy

Of course, Saudi Arabia isn’t Israel. But if Mona Seif exposed herself as a terrorist by objecting to gas sales to Israel, then what can you say about somebody who wants to fuck the oil supplier for the entire world? Gitmo is too good for these people. They deserve some sophisticated form of torture, like interning at the UN Watch offices.

Then there are the anti-Putin tweeters, who are probably Chechen terrorists.

FuckPutin copy

In truth, though, there’s a moral dilemma in all this for Hillel Neuer (or there would be if the word “moral” didn’t get the willies being five words away from his name). The fact is, terror-tweeters don’t just call for fucking good guys. Sometimes they encourage fucking things that Hillel Neuer also dislikes. 

Think of what mixed feelings Hillel must have on reading this:

FuckGAddafi copy 2

On the one hand, Gaddafi was not Hillel Neuer’s kind of guy. On the other hand, undoubtedly this is terror-tweeting, and deserves the maximum penalty. (Not to mention that Gaddafi was actually menaced by fucking with a rebel’s baton in the moments before his death. That preceded this tweet by five months, but the terror-tweeter still bears moral responsibility.)

And there are all the #FuckAssad tweets that follow Syrian atrocities. Sometimes these even boast a #KillAssad hashtag. But I haven’t seen Hillel Neuer raise a single faint twitch or twoot in objection to these calls for violence!  Probably he’s too busy.

Fuck Assad 2 copy

Or could it be — I’m just speculating — that Hillel allows people to get angry about rights abuses when caused by Israel’s enemies, but not when they’re perpetrated by Israel itself? That would be awfully inconsistent for a “human rights activist.” But I wonder.

Then, of course, there’s el-Ikhwan el-Muslimun, the Muslim Brotherhood. Hillel hates them, of course, not least because they contain some real anti-Semites, unlike the anti-Semitism Hillel’s job requires him to invent. How hard it must be, then, for him to wrap his head round the fact that so many Egyptian activists who tweet #FuckIsrael also tweet #FuckMorsi, or #FuckIkhwan! How can Hillel manage to condemn the first as terror-tweeting, but not the second? Really, I’m afraid they all should go to jail, if Hillel wants to be true to his principles (an open question). The miscreants range from really angry people —

Fuck Morsi 1 copy

to those unreasonably offended by the Ikhwan’s mimicry of Mubarak —

Fuck Morsi 2 copy

to those who sound almost idealistic in their embrace of vulgar terrorism.

FuckMorsi Nora Younis copy

Sometimes I don’t know how Hillel does his job, it involves squaring so many contradictions; it’s like Machiavelli mated with non-Euclidean geometry. But I’m sure if you spend enough time in the UN Watch offices at Minitrue, it all makes sense.

And here it’s time for a confession. I realize I’ve outed some of the most prominent figures in Egyptian activism as terrorist supporters. Sorry! But I am guilty also, just like Maikel Nabil and the rest. I have used #FuckSCAF too — not only on Twitter, but in my own blog, here. I am ashamed by my flirtation with fundamentalist terrorism; I feel I should get a cushy job at the Quilliam Foundation and do penance by consorting with idiots like Shiraz Maher; but that isn’t punishment enough. If Hillel Neuer can find somebody who speaks Arabic, I suggest he phone the military prosecutor here in Egypt, and turn me in. I have plenty of free time to go over to their sinister compound, called C28, in Nasr City and (as the prosecutors tend to put it) “sit down for a cup of coffee.”

L: Big Brother. R: Mommie Dearest.

L: Big Brother. R: Mommie Dearest.

In fact: I know the place. I snapped these photos of C28 in December 2011, while I was demonstrating for Maikel Nabil; I took them surreptitiously since I was under the scrutiny of a number of guards. Photographing army installations is illegal. You might give away where power’s nerve centers hide; and if Israel (or Lesotho, or Liechtenstein) ever attacks Egypt, the first place they’d want to bomb is the military prosecutor’s, since without it the whole country would collapse into the state of nature, uncensored, brutish, and short.

The image on the right is a close-up of the figure of Justice on the building, wearing a long robe and carrying two empty scales that look more like coat-hangers. The message is apparently that military justice either is an avenging Joan Crawford (“No wire hangers!“) or will deliver your dry-cleaning for a small fee.  Either role is preferable to what the military prosecutor actually does. And cleaner.

Mohamed el-Gendy, tortured to death by Egyptian security forces, 2013

Mohamed el-Gendy, activist, tortured to death by Egyptian security forces, 2013

Does Hillel Neuer know anything about the filth that the people he defames are giving their lives to clean up — filth he only adds to with his smarmy lies? Does it occur to him that his fake charges of “supporting terror” lend comfort to their enemies: that he echoes the same smears they hear at home (and sometimes face in court) for their rights work? Does he ever try to understand the brutality that Egyptian democracy activists have confronted: under Mubarak, under the military, under Morsi? Does he have an inkling, could he endure even a glimpse, of the criminality and killing they’ve faced on the streets and in torture chambers alike?  Is he capable of comprehending what drives them to anger — and why they instinctively grasp the abuses in Cairo and the abuses in the Occupied Territories as similar, continuous, connected? I didn’t notice him among the handful of demonstrators outside C28; anything Neuer has garnered about that kind of thing, even the misery that Maikel Nabil underwent, he’s picked up from a distance. Indeed, I doubt he’d ever have the nerve to come to Egypt.  If Neuer did show up at C28, he’d probably be among the informers.

One Twitterer wrote a while ago:

Fuck as a word copy 2All the more so if you’re living what folks have lived through in Cairo, or Damascus, or Gaza. Hillel Neuer, though, doesn’t know directly what it’s like either to suffer or witness human rights abuses. He’s above all that.

Hillel Neuer: Liar. Mona Seif: Hero.

Mona Seif, Tahrir Square

Mona Seif, Tahrir Square: © Matthew Cassel,  justimage.org

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.

Big bupkes is watching you: Hillel Neuer

Big bupkes is watching you: Hillel Neuer

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:

goldberg tweet  copy

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:

blow up pipelines tweet copy

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.

"Restoring security and stability to Sinai": Egyptian police doing what they do best ( © Egypt Independent)

“Restoring security and stability to Sinai”: Egyptian police doing what they do best ( © Egypt Independent)

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.

A way in to a walled-off country: Gas enters Israel, Gazans and Egyptians can't

A way in to a walled-off country: Gas enters Israel, Gazans and Egyptians can’t

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.

There was a snake in Eden: The Sinai pipeline

There was a snake in Eden: The Sinai pipeline

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:

I lied about you, Mona. Now will you please apologize for it?

I lied about you, Mona. Now will you please apologize for it?

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 –

Mona Gaza tweet 1 copy

and this –

Mona Gaza tweet 2 copy

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.

Aida Seif el-Dawla meets with families of detained Islamists, 2005 (@ Nora Younis)

Aida Seif el-Dawla talks with families of detained Islamists, 2005 (@ Nora Younis)

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.”

Demonstrators hold an image of Mohamed el-Gendy, a young activist tortured to death by police, 2013

Demonstrators hold an image of Mohamed el-Gendy, a young activist tortured to death by police, 2013

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.

Aida Seif el-Dawla and Mona Seif

Aida Seif el-Dawla and Mona Seif

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.

Finally

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.

Alaa Abd el Fattah

Alaa Abd el Fattah

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.

Ahmed Seif al-Islam

Ahmed Seif el-Islam

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.

Ahmed Seif al-Islam and Mona Seif

Ahmed Seif el-Islam and Mona Seif

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.

Protesters confront Central Security Forces, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, November 2011

Protesters confront Central Security Forces, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, November 2011

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.