Human Dignity Forum: How do you rate the current human rights situation in Egypt?
Gamal Eid: The human rights situation is much worse than in times of war. In particular, there is no freedom of expression. In the last year and a half, around 14 newspapers have been censored. Many people are on blacklists. They are banned from expressing their opinion in the media. Also, for the first time in modern Egyptian history, 63 journalists are behind bars in prison. We have a list of the names of the imprisoned journalists on our website.
In an interview, the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi said that Egypt enjoys “unprecedented freedom of expression” and that no one was prosecuted for expressing their views. How does this match up with your assessment?
The president made that statement to the foreign community. But inside of Egypt, nobody believes it. This statement is actually used as a joke here. What we experience in our everyday life is not “unprecedented freedom of expression”. It is the exact opposite. The government controls what journalists write in newspapers or say on television. If one critical article manages to escape this surveillance from time to time, it gets attacked right away.
With your organization, the Arabic Network of Human Rights Information (ANHRI), you strive against this current situation.
We are doing what we can to defend freedom of expression. We serve as the point of defense for many human rights cases in Egypt. If somebody is detained because they expressed personal opinions or beliefs, we provide legal support. So far, we have represented several students and human rights defenders in court. We have a broad-based network of lawyers who work with us. We also document and publicize human rights violations. For example, we started an initiative called “Lawyers for Democracy”: in a monthly report, we are monitoring the democratic path in Egypt.
You won the “Roland Berger Human Dignity Award 2011” for your commitment to freedom of expression. How has ANHRI developed since then?
The Award did change a lot for us. We used a part of the endowment to create legal defense offices in the Arab region. Thanks to these offices, we are able to defend victims of the crackdown on freedom of expression in other parts of the Arab world. Furthermore, we used the endowment to build “Human Dignity Libraries” in poor areas and districts all over Cairo. People have started reading the books in our libraries in order to inform themselves. Many of them have asked to volunteer in our organization. We began to give workshops for journalists and for lawyers – our support base is getting bigger and bigger. We are one of the loudest critical voices in Egypt.
How did the Egyptian government react to your organization gaining more support?
Last year, the Egyptian government threatened to close our headquarters. Only with national and international support did our organization manage to survive. But we don’t believe that the threat is over. There are nine complaints filed against us – all fabricated in our opinion. The complaints are suspended at the moment – they have not been brought before the court, but they are also not closed. We anticipate that the threat may be postponed until the new Parliament convenes in early 2016. At that point, the activities against us will be more severe, more serious and more organized.
Even today, ANHRI is often harshly criticized on Egyptian television.
We are facing an organized defamation campaign. Not only is our work criticized on television, but our personal lives – family-related matters and issues – also come under attack. We are banned from expressing our opinion in the media as an organization, but the same applies to me as a private person. Of course, this has consequences. Six people have quit their jobs in our organization out of fear of reprisals.
Obviously, those fears are justified. In the past, you have been arrested and tortured several times. Did you ever think of quitting your job as a human rights activist and lawyer?
I am afraid of being tortured again, but that does not make me want to stop being an activist and human rights lawyer. It encourages me to be more active and to continue my work. Because I’d rather be arrested than accept the current regime in Egypt. I will never give up being a human rights defender. I feel a responsibility to continue my work until the situation improves. A very important part of our profession is to keep raising our voice and keep criticizing human rights violations – even in the face of our fears.
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