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The Human Rights Situation in Egypt: An Interview with Aida Seif El-Dawla

[Protest at the Presidential Palace in 2012 December. Image by Gigi Ibrahim.] [Protest at the Presidential Palace in 2012 December. Image by Gigi Ibrahim.]

Aida Seif El-Dawla is a psychiatrist, long time Egyptian human rights activist, and Executive Director of the al-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence. Since 1993, the Nadeem Center has worked both to rehabilitate victims of state torture while also helping to mobilize different societal sectors in Egypt against the state practice.  This interview was conducted with El-Dawla by email and in person at the Nadeem Center office in Cairo in November and December 2011. The interview discusses the current human rights situation in Egypt as well as some of the structural issues that Egyptian human rights advocates continue to confront as they attempt to build a stronger institutional and cultural culture of human rights in Egypt.

Mark Levine (ML): In a recently released report on the human rights situation in Egypt, you point out that President Mors’s first one-hundred days coincided with the anniversary of the Maspero Massacre in October 2011. It seems that this coincidence is about more than just a date. As you argue, "[o]ur [research] shows that the regime did not change, that torture remains systematic, the police continues to enjoy impunity, justice has not been enforced." Is this continuation of systematic abuses a result of the entrenched power of the old system, especially in the police, which Morsi has little power to change, or has he in fact become a part of the machine/system that he swore to replace?

Aida Seif Al-Dawla (ASD): I think that Morsi is still ruling with the old regime machinery. I have doubts that he wants to change it as long as it performs its function in protecting the regime, protecting him and his party. I understand that purging the Ministry of Interior and state security apparatus from corruption and abusive officers takes time, but there is no political will to do that, even after the passage of the draft constitution in December.

For example, had he been serious, Morsi could have ordered the Minister of Interior to remove torture equipment from police stations, to order him to tell his staff to pull themselves together, and to push for prosecution of officers accused of torture. In November it was reported that the President's office ordered the prosecution of a sergeant who is said to have verbally abused Morsi's son. He did not issue a similar order in response to the various reports that were issued by human rights groups after his first one-hundred days of rule. He claimed that he had ordered the Ministry of Interior to investigate allegations and to prepare a report on the state of human rights abuses within a maximum period of fifteen days. Those fifteen days ended on the eighteenth of October. And until now there is no reply, not even a denial of a problem in this regard. Sadly, eradicating state torture is not among Morsi's priorities. In fact, it has not been a priority for any of the presidential candidates in 2012. Even those who mentioned it were talking about torture during the Mubarak rule. Atrocities committed by the army and the police since Mubarak's removal from power have not been an issue. 

ML: Do you think that the average Egyptian has more awareness of  the content and the significance of human rights now than she or he might have had before the revolution?

ASD: I think that the average Egyptian is more aware of his right to dignity. Whether or not these are translated into human rights principles, i.e. whether or not people are aware of the conventions and the provisions is not important. One thing that has survived the counter-revolution in Egypt is people's sense of being capable of change, and their refusal to tolerate humiliation. They have not forgotten how they stood up to the police and the military. The images of the martyrs remain very alive in people's minds. The one thing that the revolution succeeded in reclaiming is the dignity of Egyptian people and their sense of entitlement to a better life.

ML: Based on what you have seen of the emerging constitutional proposals, is there the possibility that the new constitution will have enough provisions to protecthuman rights thus making it harder for governments to violate them with impunity?

ASD: The constitution is filled with ambiguity that lends itself well to manipulaton. A flagrant example of this ambiguity is reflected in a statement made by the Prime Minister. He said that labor strikes are allowed provided they do not take place within working hours, which of course renders strikes useless in practice even if they are not technically outlawed. More broadly, so many draft articles include language stating that something is considered legal “according to the law.” But of course a law can be so restrictive so as to make the right meaningless in practice.

In contrast, there are some issues that are not mentioned at all. Look at torture. The term itself does not appear anywhere in the constitution. Furthermore most of the torture that happens in police stations takes place during and immediately after arrest, to draw confessions or whatever before a case is completed or fabricated. The constitution permits the detention of someone for something like twelve hours, if I remember correctly, during which time the detainee is not entitled to know the reason for his arrest, nor can he contact anybody. Those first hours in police custody carry all the risk of all forms of torture and maltreatment. Indeed, just the other day a person apparently died a couple of hours after entering a police station.

As we see, laws can be drafted in a way that can make a constitutional provision meaningless. There is no acknowledgment of an absolute right and human rights did not seem to be a major concern of the Constitutional Committee. Instead, what appeared to be important to them was how to maintain control within the boundaries of the interests of the ruling party and its ability to retain political and economic control over society, as well as the boundaries of the Sharia. And even there they do not seem to be in agreement.

On a positive note, this process did not unfold without resistance at the grassroots level. That protest which led Morsi and the government to be too afraid to present even a draft of the constitution for public debate until a final draft was rushed through the Committee.

ML: One of the main institutions, if not the only institution, in Mubarak-era Egypt to act as a brake against Government abuses was the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC). But in the last decade, Mubarak managed to change the make-up and the rules of the Court in order to weaken its ability to push back against policies and actions that violated the constitution. How is the SCC functioning now and are you hopeful that, with the new constitution, it will regain its role as protector of core human and political rights for Egyptians, regardless of the goals and policies of the government? 

ASD: Again, this mostly happened during the Mubarak regime to the extent that it allowed such pushback to occur. And Court rulings, however positive [from a human rights perspective], were not always implemented. For example, we have several court rulings ordering privatized companies to be returned to the state, as well as a ruling for a minimum wage, none of which have been implemented. The Supreme Constitutional court became and remains politicized. Today, some of its most senior judges also hold high political posts in their judicial capacity, which harms their impartiality. There is nothing in the new Constitution that will address this problem.

ML: During Mubarak’s rule, at times there was real dialogue and even coordination between human rights  activists, political forces, and even sympathetic members of the judiciary. Are you seeing political activists, parliamentarians, or those who served in the Assembly before it was suspended, and even government officials interacting more regularly with human rights groups and activists in the emerging political system? Or are human rights groups being marginalized as new centers of power are created?  

ASD: The Mubarak era saw such coordination at moments of strong confrontation against the regime, e.g. the rise of the Kefaya movement, the movement for the independence of the judiciary, torture of renowned democracy activists, and the like. Those moments had specific objectives and were short lived; an overall picture and vision for the future was thus never shared. I dare say it was never even there. Not then, and not now. Thus, when everybody in Tahrir chanted "The people want to topple the regime" it was a unified slogan but did not mean the same thing for everybody. Some saw the change mainly in the change of Mubarak and his narrow clique, others were more serious in what they demanded.

This discrepancy revealed itself in later positions by core activists of the Tahrir uprising through 11 February 2012: leave or stay in Tahrir after the 11th, meet or not meet with Omar Soliman, or Sharaf, join or not join the Constitutional Committee and even now, meet or not meet with the president and share in the consultation meetings. The political landscape is rife with internal conflict. Nonetheless, the political picture appears to be split between the Islamists and the Liberals, given the complexity amongst all civil society actors, this is not accurate. Indeed, it falls into the trap that the Islamists intended, namely to project the conflict as one between those calling for a religious state and those calling for a secular one.  

Perhaps the most important consequence of this framing of the political debate is that it completely excludes the drive and struggle for socioeconomic rights. Here it is important to understand that too many analyses, both inside and outside Egypt, want to simplify the debates for broader consumption. So, if it becomes too complex they reduce it. Even within the human rights movements, civil and political rights are overshadowing the social and economic rights. Egyptian liberals joined the Mubarak-era leftovers as well as the Brotherhood in describing workers strikes as actions with narrow demands that should wait until the nation has been rebuilt. And when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) issued its first legislative bill against strikes and sit-ins, the legislation was welcomed by all political elite including those who describe themselves as liberals. What is new is that human rights issues, both political/civil and social/economic are taken up by youth groups who are not limited by their organizations, organizational demands, or political interests. This gives the whole human rights struggle a popular dimension that it lacked over the previous decades.

ML: Since the beginning of the uprisings across the region there have been conservative voices/figures who have appropriated the term "human rights defender" and similar terms in order to pursue an agenda that in fact seeks to curtail and restrict human rights and other freedoms, especially if they are perceived to violate sharia or supposed cultural norms. Is this also happening in Egypt? Or is the idea of human rights understood well enough by the public today to make it hard for conservatives or the government appropriate it to violated human rights? Do you see a new generation of activists who are more willing to support a full human rights agenda even when it might challenge their particular beliefs or interests? 

ASD: I do no't know about a full human rights agenda. I dare say that only a few human rights organizations support a full human rights agenda. But people understand what is in their interest or what is not. I think there are many people who would defend the implementation of Sharia while meaning something different from what the Brotherhood means, and these in turn mean something different from what the Salafis mean. Sharia is a very broad term with varying substance depending on who is interpreting it. But what is felt on the street is that the Islam Egypt knew for so long is different from the one proposed now by the Islamist groups, who also differ among themselves.

Every statement or proposal of a restrictive law suggested by a Salafi or Islamic authority, especially those suggesting weird things such as early marriage of girls, as young as nine years old, are met with excessive ridicule among social media groups and users. What is new is the fact that those fatwas are no longer terrifying to people, but are ridiculed. This holiness of what Islamists say is no longer there. Rights activists, both in organizations and in pressure groups on the street, have an opportunity to make use of this, provided they do not alienate themselves from the majority of the Egyptian people, amongst whom a head cover has almost become a national dress for both Copts and Muslims, where the majority of girls are still being circumcised, again both Copts and Muslims, and where the right to drink alcohol and wear a bikini is not on the agenda of a people the majority of whom have probably never been to the sea. 

Until now, I think, this opportunity has not been effectively used. Until now, I think, we are being drawn to react to an agenda set by the very forces and groups we are opposing. 

ML: But will the calculus change now that the constitution has been approved, however faulty the process? 

ASD: The strong opposition to the draft constitution and the low turn-out for the referendum show that people are not accepting it without protest. Morsi in many ways has become like Obama, who depends on the military and security apparatuses to rule. He had two choices at the start of his Presidency to protect his rule: the people or the army. But because of his economic policies he can not use the people to defend his authority because the people want bread and a real minimum wage. So he had to rely on the army and existing political-economic-security elite. It will take time, but this will doom him in the end as his policies are shown clearly to serve their interests and not the majority of supporters of the FJP who voted for him. 

Moreover, with the most recent violence, at the Ittihediyya Palace, the fact that forty-three people were held captive by Muslim Brotherhood members, and that there are testimonies now on YouTube by the captives describing torture, letting the world know that there was literally a chamber in the Presidential Palace used to torture people [during the protests]. He has lost an incredible amount of legitimacy with average people. The problem is that the opposition has so much work to do to offer a credible alternative. Look at the labor movement. Not only did it not manage to bring large numbers of workers, as workers, into the streets in response to the attacks on protesters at Ittihediyya or Tahrir, but it's clear that the long-term issue of trade union activists fearing to be too directly political has not been overcome yet.

ML: What is the most important thing that can be done to put activists and scholars working on human rights into more productive dialogue? 

ASD: Well, if you look at some of the books that discuss issues related to human rights, they are written with such jargon, so technical and impossible for those outside a narrow group of philosophers or critics or specialists to understand, that they're just not useful for activists on the ground. You gave me some books last time we met from a famous philosopher who works on the issue we've discussed. I tried to read them but I could get past a few pages and then closed the book. What good is that? How does that help me? We need scholars to give more attention to thinking and writing in an accessible language and with concepts that are useful to activists working on the ground to fight against these practices, not have a language that adds to the burden. Otherwise, what good is all this scholarship to activists on the ground? 

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