A Consistent Strategy
During the new board of trustees’ first year in office, several times the EOHR implemented its new policy of intervening in some of the prominent cases concerning Islamists. It intervened successfully to stop the flagellation of the leader of the Islamic Jihad movement, Aboud el-Zom- mur, and his colleagues who were in prison for their part in Sadat’s assassination. It was interesting that a prominent leader of one of the two most prominent armed Islamic groups would present a complaint to a human rights organization, especially since it requested stopping flagellation, which a great many shari'a interpreters consider a legitimate penalty. The EOHR argued that flagellation is a cruel and degrading punishment prohibited by the International Convention against Torture ratified by Egypt three year earlier.
The EOHR also intervened in the case of Tal’at Fou’ad Qassem, a principal military leader of the second most prominent armed Islamic group. In September 1988 he had completed the seven-year prison term to which he had been sentenced for his role in Sadat’s assassination, but he was not released. He had been subjected to monstrous kinds of torture the year before the EOHR intervention.4 Another intervention was on behalf of members of an alleged Shia organization arrested in 1989 and subjected to the worst kinds of torture. For the first time, the EOHR reports contained graphic depictions of some of the sadistic means employed in their torture. They were all subsequently released. Yet another example was the case of a group suspected of belonging to the Muslim Brothers. They were detained along with eighty children
between six and ten years of age who had been attending a summer
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camp that the security authorities accused the adults of administering for the purpose of inculcating religious extremism. The children stayed for two nights in the police station, where they were subjected to various forms of mistreatment, including beatings. The adults remained for several weeks, during which they were subjected to various types of torture until they were released without trial. As a final example, on September 11, 1990, the EOHR brought a serious charge against the state security apparatuses: the assassination of the spokesperson of the armed jama'a islamiyya, who had been shot dead in the street nine days earlier. The EOHR accusation was based on a unique investigation it had undertaken. The following month, the jama‘a islamiyya assassinated the Speaker of the Parliament in retaliation. These are the most prominent among the many cases the EOHR adopted during this period that concerned members of the Islamist movement.
The EOHR campaigns were not restricted to cases of Islamists. During the same time span as the Islamist cases cited above, it also intervened in many cases involving victims considered members of the left. These included the suppression of the workers’ strike at Egypt’s central iron and steel factory, crackdowns on the Communist Workers Party and the Egyptian Communist Party, and a number of individual cases of trade unionists. It also adopted cases of individual citizens and even members of security forces who were arrested and tortured in return for their demanding some improvements in work conditions. In January 1990 the EOHR started issuing what might be called ‘‘theme’’ reports on human rights violations. These comprehensive reports tracked victims from various political and trade union backgrounds who had all been subjected to the same type of violation. In January 1990, as a result of EOHR campaigns, among other factors, the fiercest and most violent minister of the interior since the time of Nasser was discharged. He had made a practice of challenging the EOHR and publicly attacked it with violent language on several occasions.
The EOHR also sharply criticized the practices of the Islamic groups that violate human rights—whether directly or indirectly—by instigating violence, promoting religious and sectarian bigotry, or urging that freedoms of opinion, expression, and belief be curtailed. The EOHR issued a number of reports verifying and documenting Islamists’ acts of violence (just as it had done with the government’s human rights violations) and calling on the armed groups to lay down their arms. This practice was unprecedented among international and local human rights NGOs, which generally restricted their work to addressing governmental violations and considered anything outside that domain to fall within the purview of international humanitarian (not human rights) law.5
Among these sensitive issues was the censorship by Al-Azhar University of freedom of opinion, thought, and artistic creativity. The censorship role the state granted to Al-Azhar has been enlarging with the growth of the Islamist movement and the state’s succumbing to it in the intellectual and cultural realms. The EOHR adopted cases involving the freedoms of opinion, thought, and belief, including the cases of writers accused of ‘‘deriding religions.’’ It also adopted the cases of people subjected to persecution for converting from Islam to Christianity. All news media, it should be noted, have refrained from mentioning the EOHR reports on this subject. Moreover, when some Islamic scholars with considerable status as spiritual leaders justified acts of violence, the EOHR publicly and severely criticized their positions.
The most telling expression of the depth of the EOHR commitment to nonideological human rights principles was the position it took after the assassination of one of its founding members—the secular intellectual Farag Fouda, a member of the board of trustees from 1986 to 1989. Fouda was assassinated in June 1992 at the hands of members of the armed jama'a islamiyya on the pretext that he was ‘‘hostile to Islam.’’ A statement issued by a number of Al-Azhar scholars had described him as such. The EOHR issued a statement severely attacking these positions. When the EOHR learned that those suspected of the assassination had been tortured, it intervened with the prosecutor general to urge it be stopped and the perpetrators prosecuted.
This chapter characterizes the strategies of the Egyptian human rights movement, with a focus on the EOHR’s struggle to define its human rights principles and its eventual insistence on maintaining a separation between the victims of rights violations and their political, ideological, or religious affiliations. This strategy endowed the EOHR with moral power and freed it from indebtedness to any faction. Indeed, most political factions in Egypt have found cause to be grateful to the EOHR or, in the case of the Islamists and the government, at least to express an ironic combination of appreciation and hatred. This strategy has also given the EOHR the ability to take audacious human rights stands on very sensitive issues, which it could not have done had it been working on only one front—focusing on violations by the Islamists.