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Got Rights? Public Interest Litigation and the Egyptian Human Rights Movement

Tamir Moustafa

When human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim and his twenty-seven colleagues were ushered into an Egyptian Emergency State Security Court on February 26, 2001, it was effectively the entire Egyptian human rights movement that stood trial. Despite a campaign by international human rights groups, a vigorous legal defense, and testimony from some of Egypt’s most respected figures, Ibrahim was found guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison for “propagating false information and vicious rumors abroad . . . which would weaken the state’s prestige and integrity.’’1 Although Ibrahim and his colleagues were eventually acquitted by the Court of Cassation and released in March 2003, there was little to celebrate. The two-year ordeal was the final assault on a movement that had endured years of government harassment, crippling new legislation regulating NGO activity, and financial strangulation through the closing of foreign funding sources. By the time of Ibrahim’s release, little remained of a human rights movement that just a few years earlier had promised to be the most effective force for political reform in the Arab world.

Why did the Egyptian government act so forcefully to shut down the country’s fledgling human rights organizations? One clear motive was to derail a movement that had brought international attention to the regime’s unsavory methods of political control. But more importantly, political retrenchment was the reaction to a productive synergy that had emerged among Egyptian human rights organizations, opposition parties, and progressive judicial activists in the state’s own court system.

In this chapter, I examine how opposition and human rights activists

Bereitgestellt von | New York University Angemeldet

Heruntergeladen am | 02.06.17 15:52

mobilized through Egypt’s relatively independent judicial institutions to challenge the regime in ways that were never possible in other formal political arenas.2 I explore how the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court, in particular, enabled political activists to credibly challenge the regime for the first time since the 1952 military coup by simply initiating constitutional litigation, a process that required few financial resources and allowed activists to circumvent the state’s highly restrictive, corpo- ratist political framework. I find that constitutional litigation provided institutional openings for political activists to challenge the state in ways that fundamentally transformed patterns of interaction between the state and society by enabling activists to challenge the regime without having to initiate a broad social movement, a task that is all but impossible in Egypt’s highly restrictive political environment.3 Ironically, however, I also find that the advantages of legal mobilization eventually impaired the ability of human rights organizations to effectively defend themselves against increasingly aggressive legal and extralegal assaults without broad-based societal support.

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