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“Freedom for the Black Gown”: Egypt’s Crackdown on Lawyers and the Rule of Law

In 2016, Egyptian human rights lawyers launched “Freedom for the Black Gown,” a campaign dedicated to highlighting the ongoing crackdown that had expanded to include the legal community. The campaign released a video showing prominent attorneys holding their bar association membership ID cards and demanding freedom for their detained colleagues. Today, many of the lawyers who appeared in this video are in prison, under travel bans, or have had to leave the country to escape harassment and threats.

The Egyptian constitution, the Lawyers’ Law, and the country’s international legal obligations collectively guarantee the independence of lawyers and establish their ability to perform their jobs. In practice, however, these protections are violated regularly—a reality that has become increasingly visible as the crackdown on fundamental freedoms escalates.

Since 2013, the rule of law in Egypt has continued to come under severe attack through vaguely-worded security-oriented legislation, violation of fair trial guarantees, and the targeting of lawyers who represent and work with human rights defenders. Lawyers challenging the state in court and those representing peaceful dissidents, especially human rights lawyers, “have to live with their phone calls being tapped, endless smear campaigns and hate speech from state-affiliated media as well as continuous harassment and intimidation from the authorities.” Lawyers have been banned from entering prosecution offices and courts; have not been allowed to view client case files; and have been denied the ability to visit their clients. In some cases, they have even been imprisoned, tortured, and murdered.

In the most recent wave of mass arrests around the September 20 protests, at least 3,763 individuals were arrested—among them, more than 20 lawyers, many of whom were targeted because of their work. For example, lawyer Mohamed Hamdi Younis was arrested and temporarily forcibly disappeared after he announced his intention to file a petition before the public prosecutor demanding a corruption investigation into allegations made by Egyptian contractor and actor Mohamed Ali. Mahinour El Massry, an award-winning human rights lawyer, was kidnapped in front of the state security prosecution building by individuals wearing civilian clothes after she finished attending an interrogation with a client; she would ultimately appear before the same prosecution and face possible charges of belonging to a terrorist organization and spreading false news. Mohamed El Baqer was notified that he was under arrest while attending interrogations with his client Alaa Abd El Fattah. Lawyer Amr Imam’s arrest came after he harshly criticized authorities for the arrest of a number of rights defenders and announced that he would stage a hunger strike in protest. Due to his work, Gamal Eid of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information has been subject to a sustained campaign of intimidation, including physical assault and vandalism.

Despite the immense obstacles they face, human rights lawyers have organized to provide legal aid to political detainees of all backgrounds. Through strategic litigation and creative defense mechanisms, lawyers have found ways to challenge state practices, and at times, legislation. Using their social media platforms, lawyers have often been the only source of information about developments affecting political detainees in an otherwise closed space; in some cases, they have also been the only avenue through which medicine, clothes, and other forms of support can be delivered to detainees that are otherwise denied their right to receive visitation.

Inflicting violence on human rights lawyers and restricting their ability to do their jobs severely obstructs access to justice and has grave implications for the protection of basic human rights, access to information, confidence in the legal system so as not to encourage extra-legal responses, and ultimately, institutional and state stability. These alarming developments occur in the context of a decades-long state-overseen systematic deterioration of the legal system, the result in part due to poor quality legal curricula, an absence of proper training opportunities for young lawyers, next to no financial resources for legal rights activities, and a shrinking space for lawyers to organize domestically, regionally, and internationally.

Increasingly, some international rights organizations have demanded that the Egyptian government stop its systematic crackdown on rights lawyers. The country’s bar association has issued a statement to denounce the most recent arrests. But unless the international community takes serious steps not only to support the legal community amid this repression, but also to develop specialized and targeted mechanisms to guarantee that Egyptian lawyers are well-trained, well-supported financially, and well-integrated into the global legal community, we will continue to see one of the country’s last lines of defense defeated and its rule of law eroded.