Hossam Bahgat talked with Alasdair Soussi
He is not yet 30, but already Hossam Bahgat has carved out a reputation as one of Egypt’s most prominent and effective human rights campaigners. As the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), Bahgat has been a major driving force behind Egypt’s civil liberties movement: no easy feat in a country, which, according to Amnesty International, causes ‘long-standing concerns on systematic torture, deaths of prisoners in custody, unfair trials, arrests of prisoners of conscience for their political and religious beliefs or for their sexual orientation, wide use of administrative detention and long-term detention without trial and use of the death penalty’.
‘Things have been getting worse,’ says Bahgat, speaking from his Cairo home. ‘But we have had victories that keep us going, such as getting people out of jail and sending abusers to prison, and that is reason enough to be doing this kind of work.’
Bahgat founded the EIPR in 2002, doing so after a career in journalism sparked an interest in Egypt’s many human rights concerns. But it was the high-profile case involving the arrest of 52 suspected gay men on a boat restaurant on the Nile in May 2001 that proved the real tipping-point for Bahgat. Not only was he dismayed at the lack of support afforded to the accused in what became known nationwide as the Queen Boat trial, but he was swiftly dismissed from his position at the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) – one of the country’s oldest and most respected civil liberties movements – after writing an article criticizing both the inaction of Egypt’s human rights groups on the affair and the security service’s gratuitous targeting of the country’s gay community. It was a set of circumstances which spurred Bahgat into action.
‘After this trial, and the reaction to the publication of my article, it became apparent that what was needed was an organization that worked on personal autonomy, bodily integrity and privacy,’ says Bahgat, whose organization became the first in Egypt to consider discrimination on the grounds of sexuality among its issues of concern. ‘Back then, these issues had been ignored or overlooked in favour of the more traditional political liberties, such as free elections, the right to establish opposition parties, freedom of the press and so on.’
Indeed, according to Bahgat, the Queen Boat trial was indicative of a systemic failure to protect the rights of the individual in Egyptian society, which also extended to matters involving religious conversion, marital rape and incest, issues then deemed too controversial for Egypt’s human rights community, but now discussed, in many Egyptian circles, as a matter of course.
‘The human rights community is now much more responsive to such issues, mostly due to the proliferation of private newspapers and satellite channels discussing political and social affairs; and, of course, the thousands of bloggers discussing issues of religion, sexuality and politics, who are pushing the limits and breaking taboos everyday.’
The EIPR offers a range of support under its remit of protecting private and bodily rights. Services include the monitoring and documentation of abuses, such as sexual harassment, policy and legal analysis, advocacy and campaigning, and intervening on select cases for the purposes of establishing a new legal precedent and highlighting areas of injustice. They are activities, which, especially in its early days, put the EIPR in the firing line.
‘When we first started, we were attacked in the press, who portrayed us as implementers of a Western agenda, a conspiracy against [Egyptian] values and religion. And when the current law on NGOs was passed in 2002, a number of organizations attempted to get registered and ours was among a handful of groups who were rejected because of the nature of the work we do.’
Though these attacks from the press have waned considerably over the years, their inability to register as an NGO has forced the EIPR, funded by the likes of the Ford Foundation and Irish Aid, to function officially as a law firm. It is a situation that speaks volumes about Egypt as a nation-state, explains Bahgat:
‘In Egypt, many aspects, including civil society regulation, are handled by the security agencies. Egypt, under [President Hosni] Mubarak, has really become a police state where the Ministry of Interior is incredibly powerful and regulates almost all aspects of public life.’
While much of the work of the EIPR remains a constant day-to-day struggle, it is not without its rewards. The group’s unwavering support of Egypt’s persecuted Baha’i population, for example, contributed hugely to the Egyptian Government’s recent decision finally to recognize the right of adherents of ‘non-recognized’ religions – a category in which followers of the Baha’i faith fall – to obtain necessary identification documents and access to basic services. And, when some Baha’is were violently attacked in the country’s south several months ago by neighbouring villagers, large sections of the country, who would once have displayed outright contempt or indifference to the minority group’s plight, condemned the violence.
‘The attacks on the Baha’is – the torching of their houses – made front page news here. Most of the columnists who discussed the matter were in support of the Baha’is and most human rights organizations joined our action on this case. That might not have been possible six or seven years ago.’
In Bahgat’s own words, ‘a lot of water has passed under the bridge’ since his dismissal from the EOHR eight years ago. But that experience, not to mention others in his role as director of the EIPR, has formed a man of great conviction who makes no excuse for siding with the most vulnerable in Egyptian society.
‘As human rights activists, our duty is not always to work on the popular issues, but also to work on issues that might not be popular for the majority. And that, in fact, is where we are most needed.’