ECRF: Fighting for life and freedom in Egypt
It started with a game of backgammon. Ahmad Abdallah and Mohamed Lotfy sat, playing in a café in Cairo. It was 2013, and Egypt was in turmoil.
After mass protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, General of the Egyptian Armed Forces Abdel Fattah el-Sisi removed President Mohamed Morsi and suspended the constitution. A crackdown followed, with a sweeping campaign of arrests and shootings.
‘It was a massacre,’ Ahmad remembers today. ‘It was the worst of the worst. People were killed on the streets in front of cameras – and we could do nothing.’
Ahmad was an activist, and he rued the lack of non-partisan organizations one could rely on for their defence. He wished there was an Egyptian commission for human rights. As the backgammon game progressed, the idea took shape.
Lofty was about to finish working for Amnesty International, where he was a researcher: he had the skills to study whether such an organization could really be created, but Ahmad struggled to get him on board. The two decided: backgammon would settle the issue. If Ahmad won, Lofty would do the study.
Five years later, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedom (ECRF) is an award-winning NGO: I meet Ahmad, co-founder with Lotfy, and head of board of trustees, and International Relations advisor Mohamed Sameh this week in London as they received the Index on Censorship 2018 Freedom of Expression Awards on behalf of the organization for their campaigning in an increasingly hostile environment.
As they tell me their stories, their intonation swoops from graveness to cheerfulness. When I ask Ahmad if it’s hard to talk about his past or about Egypt, he tells me it is painful ‘not for my experiences, but to think of the pain of others’. But in less grim conversations their humanity shines through: Ahmad laughs loudly – and he laughs often; Mohamed has a radiant smile.
Their story illustrates the lengths some human rights defenders go for their society. It shows how faith in a good cause enables them to power through extreme averse circumstances – such as Egypt’s. It shows love and hope die last.
Egyptian civil society, an endangered species
Egypt is descending into repression. Countless NGOs have been forced to close. ECRF documented 1,300 cases of enforced disappearances, including the high-profile case of Cambridge University PhD student Giulio Regeni – and they think many others slip under their radar. Some 500 websites are blocked. The country also became the world’s third largest jailer of journalists: according to the International Federation of Journalists, 20 journalists are in prison, and half of them are still without charges; UK foreign correspondent Bel Trew (The Times) was deported without explanation and is denied access to the country. Orla Guerin (BBC) faces a lawsuit demanding her expulsion following a report on human rights violations. Freedom House classifies Egypt as ‘Not free’.
Egypt says the measures are necessary to restore stability after years of unrest. Meanwhile, el-Sisi won the 2 April presidential election, widely derided as a ‘sham election’, with 97 per cent of the vote.
‘Civil society in Egypt is on the verge of extinction,’ says Amr Magdi, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. ‘In the past four years, the country witnessed the annihilation of the most basic rights, including those that are necessary for any free elections – freedom of assembly, of speech and of association.’
ECRF are among those who resist. Active in 10 out of 27 Egyptian governorates, their main struggle is to document what happens: in the unrest and el-Sisi led coup d'état of 2013 that overthrew the Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government – a pan-Islamic movement – it was difficult to know what was going on. Ahmad remembers that even some human rights defenders failed to condemn the violence unreservedly. In a regime that uses repression to silence its abuses, documenting enforced disappearances, closed NGOs, abuses and torture becomes an act of resistance. And for ECRF, a moral imperative.
In parallel, they run campaigns. For example, they document enforced disappearances and provide support to the victims’ families.
Campaigning under immense pressure
On 25 April 2016, Ahmad woke up with a machine gun pointed at his chest. It was 3am, and he remembers that masked special forces and state security surrounded his whole family home. Many were in his bedroom. He was made to sit on the ground while they searched the place.
‘Do you have an arrest warrant?’ he recalls asking.
He remembers hearing laughter. ‘What will you do if we don’t?’
It was the first night of four and a half months of in pre-trial detention. He faced charges including ‘belonging to a terrorist group’, but never had a trial.
His arrest is only an example of the immense pressure facing ECRF. On 5 September 2017, their website was blocked just a month after ECRF published a report on enforced disappearances in Egypt. They managed to create a parallel website. National Security forces raided their headquarters twice in 2017 and arrested two staff members.
Because they speak up about their missing loved ones, the Egyptian state sees victims’ families too as a threat.
Ibrahim Metwalli, an Egyptian lawyer whose son disappeared, knows this well. He looked for his son for four years, then he went missing while heading to a flight for Geneva to attend a UN event about enforced disappearances. He is still in jail, accused of ‘managing an illegal group, spreading false news, […] cooperating with foreign organizations’.
Hanan Badr el-Din is another case. Her husband disappeared in 2013, and she began the search: she visited prisons asking anyone if they had seen her husband. Then she was arrested for introducing illegal printouts in prison – pictures of her disappeared husband. At the time of writing, she is still in jail.
So it could be unsurprising that when I ask Ahmad and Mohamed what they’re proudest of they say: ‘Surviving’. ‘It’s ironic that fundamental human rights like life and freedom are victories,’ says Ahmad. But they are.
To survive, they say their struggle has made them develop multiple ‘faces’, masks. They have ordinary jobs, in which they are ‘normal’. And then there’s the activism, through which they developed an analytical persona that constantly processes information. Their activism demands attentiveness to predict coming dangers and to resort to extreme security measures – be it being wary of phone tapping or raids, or frequently changing address.
It’s spellbinding to think that the movement started with a game of backgammon, where strategy and ability to anticipate the opponent’s counter-moves are vital. And in backgammon, as perhaps in their activism, you need both skills and luck to win.
The darkest days
In prison, Ahmad met supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and a person who preached so-called Islamic State’s (ISIS) ideas. Ahmad grew worried these ideas might spread, so he stroke a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood people: to counter ISIS’s ideas, they founded a book club.
They pooled their books, and with fellow inmates they read George Orwell and Rousseau’s Social Contract, providing irony: the book opens with ‘Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others but remains more of a slave than they.’
‘In a month, the ISIS guy was isolated,’ Ahmad remembers. Nobody heeded to his ideas. But the crackdown continued in prison: Ahmad was accused of ‘spreading dangerous ideas’, and put into solitary confinement.
‘The toilet was a hole in the floor,’ he recalls. ‘I had no pillows, no towels, and only one sheet that I had to fold over my feet.’
He was suddenly freed shortly after, and still remembers it as ‘the hardest of times’. Yet when I ask Mohamed and Ahmad if they were ever on the brink of losing hope, Mohamed bursts into laughter, Ahmad lowers his eyes and shakes his head emphatically.
‘We were never pessimistic,’ Ahmad says. ‘In the darkest moments, love and hope are always there.’ He refers to the hope to have freedom, and the love of their people. ‘Egyptians are not lower level humans; we are like all other humans. We believe we deserve the freedom everyone has.’
Mohamed’s Twitter bio reads: ‘Humanity deserves better!’
Now, in London to receive the Award on behalf of the whole organization, they realize they have come a long way. ECRF and sister organizations are managing to keep hope alive in dire conditions. They say young people now spend hours to defend the cause, and the government feels the pressure. This makes them proud.
‘The government is very scared,’ Ahmad says. ‘Support for el-Sisi is going down, and the more it does, the more they resort to repression.’
They are also more conscious: they know well that the road ahead might still be long. Yet they have no intention of stopping. In the end, ECRF’s activism is a story about the force of a just cause. Their conviction powers them. They have faith they will succeed because they believe their cause is right.
‘There is no heroism in fighting a losing battle,’ Mohamed tells me at the end of an interview. ‘But this is a winning one.’
While reporting for this article, Alessio Perrone spent a week as a volunteer at Index on Censorship.