Ahmed Seif al-Islam: In dark times

Ahmed Seif el-Islam, photographed by Platon for Human RIghts Watch, 2011

Ahmed Seif el-Islam, photographed by Platon for Human Rights Watch, 2011

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.

11070278_981885211844003_7553989013040307034_nYou 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.

Alaa Abd el Fattah, Sanaa Seif, and Leila Soueif (L -R_ at Ahmed Seif al-Islam's wake at Omar Makram Mosque, August 30, 2014. Photo by Hazem Abdul Hamid for Al Masry Al Youm

Alaa Abd el Fattah, Sanaa Seif, and Leila Soueif (L -R) at Ahmed Seif al-Islam’s wake at Omar Makram Mosque, August 30, 2014. Photo by Hazem Abdul Hamid for Al Masry Al Youm

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?”

Seif, in his office at the HIsham Mubarak Law Centre

Seif, in his office at the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre

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.”

Seif

Seif at a seminar on “contempt of religion” laws, 2012

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.”

Seif and daughter Mona outside a military court in Cairo, October 30, 2011; Seif was defense attorney in one of his son Alaa's trials. Photo by Sherif Kouddous

Seif and daughter Mona outside a military court in Cairo, October 30, 2011; Seif was defending his son Alaa in one of his trials. Photo by Sherif Kouddous

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. 

Seif -- I believe at one of his summer parties for friends, extended families, and especially kids. Photo by Marwa Seoudi

Seif — I believe at one of his summer parties for friends, extended families, and especially kids. Photo by Marwa Seoudi

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.

He added:

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

Hundreds of marchers attend Ahmed Seif el-Islam's burial in Tonsy cemetery in Basateen, Cairo, August 27, 2014. Photo by Amira Salah-Ahmed for Mada Masr

Hundreds of marchers attend Ahmed Seif el-Islam’s burial in Tonsy cemetery in Basateen, Cairo, August 27, 2014. Photo by Amira Salah-Ahmed for Mada Masr

John Kerry to LGBT Egyptians: Enjoy jail

It's so funny. Sometimes I forget who I've just been torturing: Sisi meets with Kerry in Cairo, September 13, 2014. Photo: Aswat Masriya/Reuters

It’s so embarrassing. Sometimes I forget who I’ve just been torturing. Sisi meets with Kerry in Cairo, September 13, 2014. Photo: Aswat Masriya/Reuters

I have on good authority from sources here in Egypt that US Secretary of State John Kerry will attend the much-hyped “economic development conference” to be held March 13-15 in the Sharm el-Sheikh resort.

The conference is a giant attempt by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military regime to boster its legitimacy with an increasingly skeptical public, by showing it can entice international investors. The hopes he’s raising are all trickle-down ones, without much trickle. Most of the projects he’ll hawk to bankers and businessmen will be of no benefit to ordinary Egyptians — though they promise profits to well-placed construction and real estate magnates who made their fortunes under Mubarak’s dictatorship, and have been key Sisi supporters. Up for grabs, for instance, will be shares in this $20-billion glass-and-steel pyramid: planned as the tallest building in Egypt, and to be named after the founder of the United Arab Emirates, which is expected to make the down payment. This grotesque monument says something about Sisi’s Pharaonic dreams. To the tens of millions of Egypt’s poor, it’s a 600-foot middle finger.

The General says it's looking good. Now all we need are the slaves to build it.

The General says it’s looking good. Now all we need are the slaves to build it

The US already gives almost 1.5 billion in mostly military aid to Egypt. Kerry won’t be bearing many gifts on top of that; there’s practically no more to give. His job will be to help sell Sisi’s government to the fat-walleted but skeptical. He’s there as a PR agent.

Since Sisi’s 2013 coup, Kerry has shown little or no concern over burgeoning, brutal rights abuses in Egypt. (He’s largely ignored efforts by the US embassy in Cairo, and by Anne Patterson, assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, to keep the rollback of democracy on the agenda.) Last summer, for instance — in a callow slap in the face to Egypt’s embattled human rights activists — Kerry handed Sisi almost $600 million in suspended US military aid, along with 10 long-promised Apache helicopters, just one day after the regime mauled and arrested dozens of protesters against its draconian anti-protest law. Among those jailed (and now serving two years in prison for the crime of carrying signs on the street) were the democracy activist Sanaa Seif — daughter of the late Ahmed Seif el-Islam, Egypt’s best-known human rights lawyer — and my friend the brave feminist Yara Sallam. Political prisoners in the country now number, by many estimates, over 40,000.

The UK human rights group Reprieve has condemned the British government’s decision to join the Sharm el-Sheikh gala. “Economic development must go hand-in-hand with respect for human rights,” says Reprieve’s Maya Foa; “but while the Egyptian government presides over a wave of human rights abuses, the UK’s ‘business as usual’ approach is giving it the imprimatur of approval. …. Ministers should use President Sisi’s summit to demand justice,” she adds,”before it’s too late.” But Britain, cautiously, is only sending a junior minister to the summit. What can be said when the leader of American foreign policy himself shows up to raise money for a killer regime? It’s no surprise when the United States ignores the crimes of dictatorial allies. But when it rents out its highest diplomat as their lobbyist and PR man, that goes beyond the call of duty.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender Egyptians will feel this betrayal especially harshly. Not 10 days ago, on February 27, Kerry hosted a State Department reception to anoint the first-ever US “special envoy for the human rights of LGBT persons.” “Many LGBT people continue to be harassed, arrested, killed simply because of who they are or who they love,” the Secretary intoned. “That’s unacceptable. And we believe it has to change.”

We have a moral obligation to speak out against the persecution and the marginalization of LGBT persons. And we have a moral obligation to promote societies that are more just, fair, and tolerant. It is the right thing to do. But make no mistake: It’s also a strategic necessity. Greater protection of human rights leads to greater stability, prosperity, tolerance, inclusivity, and it is not a question of occasionally – always this is what happens.

Now we know: Those were just meaningless words. Most probably, more people are serving prison sentences for consensual homosexual conduct in Egypt than anywhere in the world today. Kerry, heading to Sharm el-Sheikh, shows no inclination to “speak out,” much less refrain from serving as salesman for a government ever less “just, fair, and tolerant.”

Kerry poses with Randy Berry, new special envoy on LGBT people's human rights, February 27. Photo: Department of State

Kerry poses with Randy Berry, new special envoy on LGBT people’s human rights, February 27. Photo: Department of State

Two trials, two travesties

Convicted men in the wedding video trial cover the faces as police lead them from the courtroom cage, Cairo, November 1, 2014: Photo © Independent (UK)

Convicted men in the wedding video trial cover their faces as police lead them from the courtroom cage, Cairo, November 1, 2014: Photo © Independent (UK)

Eight men were sent to prison today in Cairo, because their faces flickered through a video that prosecutors said showed a “gay wedding.” They got three years; after that, they’ll serve another three years’ “probation,” sleeping every night from dusk to dawn in a police station. Their lives are ruined.

It’s not even clear yet what charges they were convicted of. The heavy book thrown at them seems to have included “incitement to debauchery” (fujur, the term of art for male homosexual conduct in Egyptian law); that’s article 14 of Law 10/1961, in itself worth up to three years in prison. There were also articles 178 or 179 of the criminal code, anti-pornography provisions that punish “manufacturing or possessing materials that violate public morals,” or “inciting passersby to commit indecency on a public road.” The charges were ridiculous. The defendants didn’t spread the video or incite anyone to anything — when the film went viral on YouTube, those who were in it tried desperately to get it taken down. The film clip wasn’t remotely pornographic. YouTube is not a public road. There was no proof the men were gay. A representative of the country’s Forensic Medical Authority — who inflicted abusive and intrusive anal examinations on them all, and found even by those bogus standards they were “unused” — said, “The entire case is made up and lacks basis. The police did not arrest them red-handed and the video does not prove anything.” In Egypt, though, trials no longer proceed through proof, just prejudice and fear. Rampant political opportunism trampling the remains of rule of law: that’s General Sisi’s Egypt.

Full leather drag: Central Security (Amn El-Merkezi) forces on the march in Cairo

Full leather drag: Central Security (Amn El-Merkezi) forces on the march in Cairo

On October 26, in a court in a sun-baked Cairo military compound, 23 defendants also got three years in prison, and three years of further dusk-to-dawn confinement. They included my friend Yara Sallam, a feminist and human rights activist, and six other women, and sixteen men. Among them also were Sanaa Seif, a young democracy activist, the daughter of the late, heroic human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif el-Islam, who died in August while working on her defense; a well-known photographer, Rania El-Sheikh; Mohammed Anwar or “Anno,” a revolutionary veteran who was a gifted member of a modern dance company as well; and more. Their crime was being on the scene of a peaceful June 21 demonstration near the Presidential Palace. The protest was against Egypt’s new, repressive protest law, which the military government imposed by decree last year. The law lets the state imprison anyone who voices opposition in the streets without permission. It’s meant to put any and all dissent in its proper place: a penitentiary.

If I can't dance, I don't want your revolution: Mohammed Anwar

If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution: Mohammed Anwar

“This is a politicized sentence. There isn’t any evidence against the defendants,” one of the defense attorneys told the media after the verdict came down. Who the hell cares? The day after the verdict Sisi excreted a new decree. It gives military courts jurisdiction over crimes committed in almost any public spaces. The security establishment saw its powers expand exponentially at a penstroke, like a black mushroom cloud ballooning out to darken the country. More and more civilians will appear before military prosecutors and military judges, to face military sentences, their civil rights shrunken to scraps and rags. Meanwhile, Sanaa Seif’s sister Mona Seif (who has campaigned for years against military trials for civilians) and her mother Laila Soueif are on a hunger strike to protest the increasingly total reach of state repression. Before last week, they refused food; since the verdict, they have refused liquids as well. No one doubts: the government would like to see them die.

Laila Soueif (L) and Mona Seif (R) on hunger strike earlier this month, in a corridor of the Supreme Court building in Cairo

Laila Soueif (L) and Mona Seif (R) on hunger strike earlier this month, in a corridor of the Supreme Court building in Cairo

Three years for peaceful protest; three years for exchanging rings. Every trial in Egypt these days is a travesty. “Travesty” has many meanings, among them a joyous play with gender; in Latin America, in Turkey, travesti refers to trans people, whose communities subvert some of the most rigid social norms. And trans people have been among the victims of Egypt’s regime, rounded up in bars and on streets and in private apartments for defying the military definition of conformist, nationalist, ideal manhood. Self-expression looks like dangerous deception to the Sisi state.

That’s the state’s inward irony, its private joke. By the draconian terms of Egyptian law these travesties of trials themselves should be jailed: for assuming false identities; for conspiring to deceive; for defrauding the public they claim to defend; for cross-dressing as justice.

Yara Sallam (top L), Sanaa Seif (bottom L), and three other defendants in prison garb at a September 13 hearing

Yara Sallam (top L), Sanaa Seif (bottom L), and three other defendants in prison garb at a September 13 hearing

Send your support to Yara Sallam and other human rights defenders imprisoned in Egypt

Yara Sallam (R) in the courtroom cage in Tora, June 23

Yara Sallam (R) in the courtroom cage in Tora, June 23

On June 29 a court met in the Police Institute at Tora on the margins of Cairo– “a security fortress, managed by the Ministry of Interior,” next to Tora prison where tens or hundreds of thousands of dissidents have been held and tortured over the years. It heard the case of 23 people arrested in a peaceful protest against Egypt’s draconian protest law on June 21. (More on the case, and the detainees, here.) After a long, hot day of delays while the prisoners waited in the courtroom cage, the judge left for home without even announcing the disposition of the case. It took hours for lawyers to find out that he’d scheduled the next hearing for September 13, meaning the prisoners will swelter all this blazing summer in crowded cells.

In an ominous sign, before departing, the judge sentenced defendants in another protest-law case to five years. Even the courtroom guards were stunned: “Five years for a one-hour march?” one policeman said.

Yara Sallam in different days

Yara Sallam in different days

Colleagues of mine have been able to visit my friend Yara Sallam and some of the six other women’s human rights defenders in al-Qanater prison. They are in good spirits but they have asked for letters. Fortunately, there’s a way to get letters to the women prisoners. You can send them in e-mails, and colleagues will print them out and try to deliver them. You can also write separately to the men who have been jailed in the same case, and efforts will be made to deliver those. You can write to individual prisoners, or to groups. They would all appreciate contact with and support from the outside world.

Take a minute to write a few lines thanking them for their struggle for democracy in Egypt. For now, you can send the letters to them to me at scottlong1980@gmail.com and I’ll forward them to the people who will try to deliver them. The names of the detainees are below. An action alert from FIDH here includes addresses to write to the Egyptian authorities in protest against their detention.

Women:
Yara Sallam
Sanaa Seif
Salwa Mehrez
Nahed Sherif (known as Nahed Bebo)
Hanan Mostafa
Samar Ibrahim
Fekreya Mohamed (known as Rania El-Sheikh)

Men:
Ibrahim al-Saeed
Ahmad Samir
Mohamed Miza
Islam Givara
Ahmad Oraby
Islam Oraby
Moataz Mansour
Karam Mostafa
Mohamed al-Beyali
Mostafa Ibrahim
Yasser al-Qott
Mohamed Moftah
Mohamed al-Araby
Mahmoud Hesham
Moamen Radwan
Islam Abdel Hamid

Sanaa-Seif

Sanaa Seif

 

Yara Sallam in jail, and the moral bankruptcy of the United States

Yara Sallam

Yara Sallam

Note: Visit the Egypt Solidarity Initiative website for resources on the #noprotestlaw campaign, including a list of Egyptian embassies to write about these arrests. Other important links are at the bottom of this post.

Yara Sallam is a human rights activist and a women’s rights activist. She is also a feminist. The distinction may seem captious, but I am careful to draw it. Rights activists (of whom I’m one) want to change the rules of the world. Feminists want to change the world itself, its deep structures of power; to have new players in a new game, on a different, still dormant field. The rules are bad; the game as we play it now is stacked against almost everybody except those who keep the score; to instill some modicum of fair play is essential. Yet nobody with much of a mind who’s worked in human rights for long escapes feeling this is palliative, a tinkering with superficies, and that however impossible a deeper change may be, the labor cannot carry on without a tinge of the impossibility that inhabits only our anger and our dreams. Why are we addicted to the game we are losing? “The roulette table pays nobody except him that keeps it,” Bernard Shaw wrote. “Nevertheless, a passion for gambling is common, though a passion for keeping roulette tables is unknown.” Check how the ball is weighted, calibrate the points. But in the long run someone also has to say: break the wheel, step away from the table, stop the game.

Boys will be boys: Men's rights activists John Kerry and General Abdelfattah el-SIsi meet in Cairo, June 22

Boys will be boys, I: Men’s rights activists John Kerry and General Abdel Fattah el-SIsi meet in Cairo, June 22

Yara is a friend, and she is under arrest tonight, in the Heliopolis police station in Cairo. June 21 was an international day of solidarity against Egypt’s anti-protest law. The law — a decree introduced in November — clamps draconian punishments on demonstrations, including prison terms of 2-5 years for anyone “calling for disrupting public interests,” that is, criticizing the state. It was meant to bolster the rule of the military counter-revolution by choking the rich protest culture that grew up in Egypt after February 2011. Two days after the law was promulgated, activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah joined a demonstration against military trials for civilians. Two days after that, police broke down his door, slapped his wife, and arrested him for violating the protest law. This month, a court handed him and other defendants 15-year prison terms. Last month, another judge gave Mahienour el-Massry, a well-known rights lawyer, and eight others two-year sentences for demonstrating against the torture and murder of Khaled Said — a victim of Mubarak’s police whose killing helped spark the 2011 revolution. “The military authority stands now on the remains of its opposition,” a dissident said.

June 21 was meant to show support for the victims of Egypt’s new, systematic oppression of dissent.

Protest march in Heliopolis, June 21, minutes before it was attacked: Photo by @KhalidAbdalla

Protest march in Heliopolis, June 21, minutes before it was attacked: Photo by @KhalidAbdalla

The anti-protest law protest in Cairo wound through narrow streets toward the Presidential Palace in Heliopolis. At every open space, hired thugs — the baltageya who were the Mubarak regime’s enforcers against dissent — and security forces assaulted them. Armed with the full power of the law, the regime still enlisted extra-legal violence — against a few hundred marchers. Mina Fayek, one of them, says 

We were attacked by thugs who beat us with broken glass bottles and stones. Then suddenly they disappeared and instantaneously the state security forces appeared and started firing tear gas and “sound guns” …  I saw a police officer directing the thugs with my own eyes, so they [would] stall the protesters till state security cars could make their way to them.

Photographs (taken from @Youm7) show coordinated onslaught of civilian attackers and State Security vehicles: via @Amosaadz)

Photographs (taken from Youm7) show coordinated onslaught of civilian attackers and State Security vehicles: via @Amosaadz)

Dina Youssef, another protester, says: 

When the police and people with them started throwing glass bottles and tear gas at us, I couldn’t run and hid behind a tree! One of them found me, and started threatening me with a strange knife, so I ran and jumped into a ground floor balcony in a nearby building.

Photographs reportedly showing two of the baltageya who attacked the June 21 march

Boys will be boys, II: Photographs reportedly showing two of the baltageya who attacked the June 21 march

Two other boys and four girls joined me, and they started crying hysterically. I tried to calm them down because the man with the knife had seen us. He was stalled as protestors started throwing stones at him, so we all ran from the balcony to the street and started chanting ” police are pigs”! They then shot tear gas canisters at us and as we ran, we were chased by a huge man with a big stick.I managed to make it into a building to hide … This is how they treat demonstrations in Egypt because we asked for #noprotestlaw.

Security forces seize Omar Morsi at the march. Salwa Mehrez, left, was also arrested because she refused to leave him.

Security forces seize Omar Morsi at the march. Salwa Mehrez, left, was also arrested because she refused to leave him.

Security forces arrested over thirty people. Seven were freed this afternoon; the rest, at least 24, will be brought before a prosecutor tomorrow. They include Yara and Sanaa Seif. Sanaa is Alaa Abd el-Fattah’s youngest sister, a student activist and artist from a distinguished family of dissidents who have racked up years of imprisonment between them; according to her aunt, the novelist Ahdaf Soueif, she was arrested “when she refused to escape and leave 3 young men to the police.” Reportedly they will face charges including illegal protest, “attacking public and private property,” and “possession of flammable materials and explosives during participation in such a protest.” Soueif writes, “We never even fired a firecracker!”

Leaked charge sheet against the arrested protesters

Leaked charge sheet against the arrested protesters

My friend Yara is brilliant, charismatic, and kind. A lawyer educated in Egypt, France, and the United States, she has worked for the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) in The Gambia; as manager of the Women’s Human Rights Defenders program at Nazra for Feminist Studies, in Cairo; and as a researcher for the the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). In 2013 the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network gave her its North African Shield award for her work in support of other women’s rights activists. Last year she explained the roots of her feminist commitment:

The first time I read about feminism as a theory was in 2010 while I was doing my master’s degree, but I didn’t need to read the theories and the books to practice feminism. I was lucky to be raised in a leftist family that believes in equality between men and women, and applies these values. My mother is, by anyone’s definition, indeed a feminist, but still refuses to call herself one because of the negative connotations associated with who is a “feminist” and whether this implies an aggression toward men. For me, growing up seeing a strong woman like my mother, who fought her own battles bravely in the public sphere, struggled while growing up, takes strong stands in her personal life despite social stigmas, is what inspired me and made me the feminist I am today. She taught me about feminism in her day-to-day struggle, and I will be grateful for her all my life.

 Yara Sallam interviewed after receiving the North African HRD Shield award, 2013

I know her family is desperately worried for her as she sits caged in a cell. Their fears run like rainwater into a pool of fear. They join the fear that families of Muslim Brotherhood supporters felt after thousands were slaughtered in Rabaa or dozens in Abu Zabaal. The tears of the secular and of the religious are equally salt. Having massacred and suppressed Islamists, a government determined to cement its power increasingly turns its gaze upon the remaining liberals and the revolutionary young. A few days before Yara’s arrest, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights released a report she had taken the lead in researching: an investigation of state responsibility for the rampant killings in the summer of 2013.

August 16: Old woman wounded by birdshot at Rabaa El-Adawiya collapses on hospital floor. From @SharifKaddous

August 16, 2013: Old woman wounded by birdshot in the massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters at Rabaa El-Adawiya, Cairo, collapses on hospital floor. From @SharifKaddous

The day after Yara’s arrest, John Kerry came to Cairo. He brought news that the US “had quietly sent an estimated $572 million to Cairo in military and security assistance this month,” gun money that had been suspended since October over human rights concerns. He also came with a promise of 10 Apache attack helicopters to keep the dictator secure: “The Apaches will come, and they’ll come very very soon,” he intoned, sounding remarkably like John Wayne. He spoke of the US’s “historic partnership” with Egypt — or, as a “senior State Department official” told reporters on the plane:

I  think that the Secretary is going to make clear that we want to be as supportive as possible of Egypt’s transition … [There is a] recognition that Egypt has been going through a very difficult transition. There’s a strong desire on the part of the United States for this transition to succeed. Egypt is a strategic partner and we have a longstanding relationship with Egypt. It’s a partnership that’s based on shared interest, strategic interest.

It was a great festival of making-clear. “Egypt and its people have made clear their demands for dignity, justice and for political and economic opportunity,” Kerry said. “They just had a historic election for president.”  Indeed: Egypt has seen three contested polls for president in its history. In 2005, Mubarak triumphed; in 2012, Morsi narrowly won; and then there’s Sisi’s landslide. This democratic avalanche is the first where the winner gave himself more than 95% of the vote. Truly historic! Even Mubarak’s faked ascension showed more modesty.

Kerry came to Egypt disguised as a diplomat, but acting like a criminal accomplice. The United States colludes with murder. (The same day Yara was jailed, an Egyptian court confirmed mass death sentences on the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and 182 supporters — gleefully envisioning the execution of the political force that won Egypt’s only free elections, ever.) The Obama administration has policies of a sort on human rights; but they are not about change. They are about keeping the misery inconspicuous. At best where our most suasible allies are concerned, they envision a slight tinkering with the rules of repression to make the violence palatable. But the United States will keep furnishing the means of murder to its friends. The Apaches are coming.

These days the Apaches are the cavalry. And they're both coming.

Boys will be boys, III: These days the Apaches are the cavalry. And they’re both on the way.

You can see this everywhere. Two days before Yara’s arrest, under pressure from homebound constituencies, the Obama administration announced punitive measures against Uganda’s government for passing the horrific Anti-Homosexuality Bill. These included visa bans on the worst offenders — good — and some adjustments to humanitarian aid, more carefully targeted than most observers expected. Oh, yes, and there was a slight change in the US’s intimate military relationship with Museveni’s dictatorship. “We have also cancelled plans to conduct the Department of Defense’s Africa Partnership Flight exercise in Uganda. This was intended to be a United States African Command (AFRICOM)-sponsored aviation exercise with other East African partners.” Tremble, puny generals! But the rest of the massive military support the US provides Museveni remained untouched. The means of killing that Obama gives the dictator are literally incalculable: just try to come up with a solid dollar figure. The regime is usefully repressive. So long as it’s stable, it remains a pillar in AFRICOM’s efforts to fight back terrorism in East Africa, and retain American hegemony over the region’s resources, including a growing likelihood of lots of oil. Never mind that those arms and military expertise go to kill thousands in Uganda’s north, and are the key props of the same government that arrests lesbians, and gays, and trans people. The Apaches will keep coming — at least, till somebody says: Stop the game.

“The U.S. government is mindful of the wide range of issues encompassed by our relationship with Uganda,” the administration’s statement said, including “a partnership that advances our security interests in the region.” American gays applauded Obama’s service to human rights. Wasn’t it proof that LGBT rights can actually coexist with America’s “security interests” in seeing people killed? The Human RIghts Campaign said Obama had “put all world leaders on notice.” He’d affirmed his “deep commitment to advancing the human rights of all people,” etcetera. Then everybody got ready to go to the White House and shake Obama’s hand. But you should be careful shaking the hands of those who shake the hands of killers. Blood rubs off.

Visit the Egypt Solidarity Initiative website for resources on the #noprotestlaw campaign, including a list of Egyptian embassies to write about the detentions, as well as images, placards, and other materials.
A June 22 statement on Yara Sallam and other women human rights defenders arrested in the protest, from Nazra for Feminist Studies, is here. A June 23 press release from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and 11 other groups is here.
Visit egyptprotests2014.tumblr.com for updates about the detainees, further protests, and the law itself. 

 Sanaa Seif interviewed about the role of women in the Egyptian Revolution, 2011