Couple of weeks ago, I had a very interesting conversation on the odds of being a human rights activist and a civil society professional in Egypt. On an internal flight from Hurghada to Cairo, I met an old friend and colleague whose name recently disappeared from the public scene. He decided to quit his passion as a civil society worker and moved to “doing some money,” as he explained to me. He is ten years older than me, which means he is in mid forties. He started his own business in real estate, a few months ago, and apparently he is doing well in his new career.
I was first intrigued by the fact that he had the courage to make a career shift in that age and such economic troubles. But what was more intriguing was the question why a human rights professional, as successful as he is, would decide to quit just like that. He invested nearly twenty years of his life in that thorny field. Part of those years, he had to spend in jail because of his strong opinions against the defunct regime of Mubarak.
His answers to my curious questions put me in a weird confrontation with my own self. I found out that I am facing the same dilemma that he failed to handle and ended up quitting everything he once loved to put his mind at ease. It is about where we, as Egyptian human rights activists, should stand. Should we keep taking confrontational stance towards the state and give the Islamists the golden opportunity to intervene through this window as they did before? Alternatively, should we take a moderate stance of friendship with the political leadership to direct them to the right track of liberal democracy while preserving and respecting state’s agenda in facing those endless security and economic challenges? Should we, as advocates for human rights and liberal democracy, be part of the problem or be part of the solution? And, how?
Before the Arab Spring and Egypt’s revolution in 2011, things were sharply defined. It was obvious to everyone whom was working for human rights, whom was active in political opposition, whom was practicing corruption in the government, and whom was passive. No group wore a mask or manipulated who they were. No one had to hide their real face. The battle was a fair one between those who wanted to keep the corrupt regime in place to keep their interests safe, and those who wanted to end that miserable situation and start a new page where liberal democracy could be the basis to build on. It was easier to choose which side to take.
As soon as the revolution succeeded and Mubarak’s regime was toppled, the hopes turned super high. The previously well-defined groups started to shake and mix really hard. The human rights activist turned into a politician who would not mind playing it dirty to win some seat. The liberal political activist joined forces with the totally illiberal Muslim Brotherhood because they were the only organized group with the highest potential to rule the country. The old corrupt affiliates of the falling regime used their financial power to manipulate media and public opinion into hating the young revolutionists under claims that they have “suspicious” links with the Western World. It was a total mess!
In the midst of the mess, the Muslim Brotherhood made their way up the ladder and became the new face for Egypt. Their ladder was not democracy, but rather a canny manipulation of media and civil society represented in liberal activists, revolutionaries, and the human rights community. Only a few were strong enough to resist Muslim Brotherhood’s seduction strategies in the form of financial support, promises of positions in the new government, or even removal of due legal burdens. Many were those who wanted to be friends with the new power, in hope to get a bigger piece of the cake.
Soon after, the Muslim Brotherhood started to Islamize the nation state of Egypt, which we have always known. They wanted it to be part of the bigger Islamic Caliphate that they have always dreamt of. That simply meant a clear threat to all our beliefs of liberal democracy, which goes beyond the minor act of voting to the bigger act of ensuring individualism, civil freedoms, and human rights to all citizens. That was the moment, the few who resisted the earlier temptations to sell themselves to the devil, decided to come together and take action. That was the moment another revolution was born; only one year after having the Islamists in power. And once again, the same military, which sided with revolutionaries in January 2011, sided with them in June 2013; and we won our country back.
We expected the world to support us in 2013 as they supported us in 2011. But, to our disappointment, the international community, in most part, launched a war against the revolutionaries and in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood. International human rights organizations like “Amnesty International” and “Human Rights Watch” which failed to utter a single word to condemn Erdogan’s tyranny in Turkey, as one example, launched a savage campaign against Egypt, based on false claims and total disregard of the mortal combat Egypt is leading against terrorist groups, which are openly wined and dined by the Muslim Brotherhood.
As a human rights activist, I was perplexed why the international human rights community, in most part, is standing in favor of the extremist Islamists and not in favor of the people who removed them from power. Standing up for human rights should not intervene with the well-being of the state and does not mean standing with extremists. For the human rights activist to do their work right, they should not take a political side. Neutrality towards all political parties is a necessity.
The fact that the most of the international human rights community sided with the Muslim Brotherhood against our will, as citizens first and human rights advocates second, made us more willing to take side with our military and then with our current regime led by Elsisi, who comes from this same military. We do not view our military as an enemy, but we definitely view autocrats and theocrats as a huge threat to our aspired liberal democracy. We elected Elsisi and took his side because all the other options that were available, then, threatened to bring Islamists and autocrats back.
Nevertheless, taking the side of the current regime does not mean that my colleagues and I gave up on human rights. On the contrary, approaching the government on issues related to human rights as a friend proved to be much more helpful than other confrontational methods; especially when you are calling for human rights in a country, which is under attack by a wild enemy carrying Islam as a shield.
If human rights organizations’ job is to confront the regime rather than help it fix its mistakes on human rights agenda, why “Human Rights Watch,” for instance, did not confront Obama on supporting the oppression practiced by the American policemen on Afro-American citizens? Why “Amnesty International” did not confront the consecutive British Prime Ministers supporting police oppression to control riot on several occasions? Why the two organizations, which issue weekly statements condemning Egypt based on false claims, are so silent on the Hitler-style tyranny practiced in Turkey, today, by Erdogan?
I wrote this monologue as an attempt to confront my own dilemma on where to stand as an Egyptian human rights activist. I think, at this point, I have come to an answer. I have chosen to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. One can always stand up for human rights in a country that is not democratic enough, but if this country falls apart, every thing shall fall with it, including rights and freedoms. The falling Syria is one example of many!
I do hope this little journal would help the international community understand what we are going through, as Egyptian human rights activists. International human rights organizations, especially those with big names and history, have to stop adopting a political agenda and be true to the human rights values that they claim to defend. They need to be part of the solution and stop adding to our problems.