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Egypt’s activists should be celebrated, not criminalised

As justice remains elusive, celebration of Egyptian civil society can build a strong counter-narrative to criminalisation.

Niall Carson/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved. December 2016 - Betty Purcell from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Comission campaigns for the release of Ibrahim Halawa in Dublin's city centre, where family members and supporters held an awareness day as he celebrates his 21st Birthday behind bars in Egypt. Niall Carson/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.US President Trump’s effusive and unequivocal endorsement of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi following their bilateral meeting on April 3 in Washington D.C. sounded the alarm that concerns over Egypt’s continued persecution of human rights activists have taken a back-seat in terms of the new administration’s foreign policy priorities.

This comes at the worst possible time for Egyptian activists whose voice and activities are being stifled by travel bans, asset freezes, closures and the looming threat of long prison sentences for spurious and vague charges such as receiving foreign funding “with the aim of pursuing acts harmful to national interests or destabilizing the general peace or the country’s independence and its unity.”

The case of Mozn Hassan is illustrative. Just one year ago, Mozn, Egypt’s leading contemporary feminist, was first summoned for questioning in connection with a judicial investigation scrutinising over thirty leading Egyptian rights organisations for receiving foreign funding in contravention of a Mubarak-era law regulating NGOs.

This investigation has not only limited Mozn’s personal freedoms – she has been unable to travel internationally since March 2016 – but also, through a recent freeze on her assets, and those of Nazra for Feminist Studies - the organisation that she leads - imperilled their crucial work to promote women’s political participation and provide legal, medical and psychosocial services to women survivors of violence.

Yet, on March 25, 2017, there was a palpable sense of celebration and joy in the air as Mozn received her Right Livelihood Award, popularly known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize” in Cairo at a ceremony attended by over 150 activists, journalists, politicians, diplomats and Egypt’s embattled civil society leaders.

Mozn had been unable to receive the Award in Stockholm in November 2016 despite three UN experts opining that the travel ban against her was in violation of international law. If travel bans have become a frequently used tool by governments keen to prevent an exchange of ideas between local activists and the wider world, the ceremony in Cairo exposed its limits.

International civil society representatives and parliamentarians from Ireland, Germany and Sweden travelled to Egypt to both honour Mozn’s important contributions to the cause of women’s rights and call for the unfair sanctions against her to be lifted without delay.

The aphorism that justice delayed is justice denied is true for Mozn and many others in Egypt, like Irish citizen Ibrahim Halawa.  Ibrahim was just 17 when arrested and has spent over 1300 days in prison and his mass trial has been postponed 21 times.

While Mozn has not been brought to trial even after a year of being investigated, her work is being seriously impeded owing to the sanctions imposed against her. The investigation’s slow pace violates international fair trial principles, and the harsh pre-trial sanctions make a mockery of the presumption of innocence.

In her speech marking the occasion, Mozn made it clear that having the Award ceremony in Cairo meant that “appreciation and solidarity can reach you despite travel bans” and that the work of Egyptian feminists “is seen and valued by different actors around the world.”

It was evident that the powerful solidarity and human bonds between individuals, and the institutions that they represent, was felt not just by Mozn that night, but by all members of Egypt’s civil society who were present.

For Egyptian activists facing an uncertain future, the event underlined that the international community was not abandoning them, but were instead emphasising that their hard won achievements - such as the enshrining of women’s rights in Egypt’s constitution, which Mozn and a coalition of women’s rights groups achieved – were worth celebrating.

The presence of eminent international dignitaries at the ceremony represented the best possible counter-narrative to the argument that civil society bring Egypt to disrepute abroad. It highlighted that these women and men are respected and admired internationally for being Egyptians who have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to contributing to the development of their country and its institutions.

This experience demonstrates that governments, parliamentarians, philanthropists and international organisations who care about human rights in Egypt need to do more. Now is not the time to stop investing in Egyptian civil society organizations, cancel a planned solidarity visit, or stop advocating and engaging at every level with the Egyptian government.

By standing shoulder to shoulder with Egypt’s courageous, compelling and vibrant civil society activists and honouring them, we convey to them a powerful message of solidarity, and an equally unambiguous message to their government – that Egypt’s activists should be celebrated, not criminalised.


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