It’s no secret that being a lawyer isn’t a walk in the park—the stress, long hours, ever-changing laws, and serious responsibility makes it a hard choice. Today in Egypt, it’s also a risky choice—one that in recent years has led to prison sentences, exile and even death.
Historically, lawyers have played a vital role in resistance and mobilization. Leftist lawyers who were active in the Freedoms Committee of the Bar Association in the 1980s played a key role in establishing the first wave of human rights organizations that used litigation as a strategy in promoting human rights.
I graduated from law school in 2009 with family hopes that I would join the Administrative Prosecution—a dream that was complicated by my arrest on April 6, 2008 in a small anti-corruption protest. My mother had preferred that I work as a clerk or a secretary in a court rather than being a lawyer— “it’s no job for a woman to work with criminals and outlaws”—but I already had my heart set on becoming a human rights lawyer. During my short arrest in 2008, I witnessed police officers humiliating, insulting, and physically torturing detainees. While I couldn’t do anything to prevent it back then, I decided that I would arm myself with the legal knowledge to confront it in the future.
From the start of my legal career, I got a firsthand look at the economic and social dimensions of the friction between judges and lawyers. Due to limited vacancies, law students must compete for judicial positions, the vast majority of which are filled based on social class, rather than on merit. In this respect, law graduates must submit a list of their family property and wealth when applying for public prosecution positions in what is clearly persecution of underprivileged classes in Egypt. In recent years, it has been customary to consider students from underprivileged classes “socially unfit” to assume prominent state positions, such as the judiciary, in addition to the exclusion of women from assuming public prosecution positions.
As a result, the two “wings of justice” differ significantly in their composition and rarely cross roads outside of courtrooms. What adds to the gap is that transitioning between the two professions is rare—unlike in other countries—and contrary to Egyptian law, which stipulates that at least 25 percent of judges should be appointed from among practicing lawyers. All this fosters an environment in which prosecutors and judges often treat lawyers with disrespect, causing much unrest and resentment among lawyers.
I was one of thousands of people to follow the “We are All Khaled Said” Facebook page, named after the young Alexandrian who was brutally tortured and killed by police in 2010. Through this page, I learned about the plans to protest against then-Minister of Interior Habib El Adly on January 25, 2011. I felt a responsibility to participate, especially given my interest in accountability for torture. Near the High Court in downtown Cairo, I was among the thousands of people chanting “Down with Hosni Mubarak.”
In the two years following the revolution, Egyptian lawyers played an important role in the broad political discourse across various movements. They were able to organize themselves into professional groups such as the Front of Defense for Egyptian Protesters and Freedom for the Braves campaigns; these groups did everything from providing legal aid to using their platforms to raise awareness on social, personal and economic rights. When the state cracked down on independent media outlets, lawyers were able to provide information about political detainees and the status of cases. Successfully using “strategic litigation” to challenge state policies and confront restrictive legislation, lawyers created various opportunities to mobilize by bringing economic and political entitlements before courts. And perhaps most importantly, lawyers have provided, and continue to provide, legal defense for the rights community.
The “Shura Council protest” case in 2013 demonstrated an example of the vital role lawyers can play in fighting repressive laws. This trial is a testament to the decay of judicial independence and constituted the first application of an anti-protest law that prominent human rights defenders were accused of violating. A number of lawyers collectively defended 24 defendants, arguing that the new law was unconstitutional and that it criminalized one of the most important tools of expression in Egypt at the time. I participated in the defense of this case, which involved a number of violations. For 15 months, lawyers worked tirelessly to create an innovative defense that targeted the illegitimacy of criminalizing the right to protest. Despite these bold efforts, the court handed down harsh prison sentences to all defendants, a moment of heartbreak and defeat.
Lawyers also face violence at the hands of the police. In September 2014, a police officer attempted to prevent me from entering the court to represent a detained client. I insisted on my legal right to be allowed in, after which I was beaten by security forces and dragged on the floor. I filed a complaint only to receive a few late-night visits to my home by police who threatened me to drop the complaint—I didn’t, and the prosecution closed the case months later. That same month in political activist Ahmed Douma’s trial, Judge Muhammad Naji Shehata referred three lawyers of the defense to prosecution for investigation for “rioting and disrupting hearing procedures” after they requested that their client be allowed to attend his hearing outside of the sound-proof cage in which he was placed. It was clear that targeting lawyers wasn’t just to hinder their efforts but rather as a form of retaliation.
In March 2015, hundreds of lawyers gathered outside the Lawyers’ Syndicate in downtown Cairo to protest the killing of their colleague Karim Hamdy by police. The young lawyer had been tortured to death at a police station in the working-class Cairo neighborhood of Matariya. Amid a period of an intense security crackdown, this protest broke a barrier of fear, as lawyers marched peacefully from the syndicate to the Public Prosecutor’s office to demand a serious investigation into the case. This protest surprised many and demonstrated that lawyers were still capable of mobilizing on such a wide scale, despite immense pressure.
As this crackdown against civil society and dissidents under Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has ensued and intensified, lawyers have remained as a last line of defense against suppressive state practices.
2016 marked a quantum leap in targeting lawyers because of their work. In April, a team of lawyers submitted a lawsuit to the State Council to contest Egypt’s maritime agreement with Saudi Arabia to concede the islands of Tiran and Sanafir. Malek Adly and Sayed El Banna, members of this team, were arrested and accused of inciting protests.
On December 11, 2016, a suicide bomber killed 29 people and injured 47 at El-Botroseya Church in Cairo. The next day, President Sisi announced the name of the bomber, shortly after which, I started being tagged on social media, as the named perpetrator was one of my previous clients—two years earlier, I had represented him in a separate case, when he was only 16 years old. Back then he had been arbitrarily arrested near a protest in Fayoum and was subsequently tortured into giving a forced confession of illegally possessing weapons, which was broadcast on national television where he appeared with visible torture signs on his face. He was then taken to Demo Prison—a facility for adults—despite my constant requests at the time to move him to a juvenile facility. He was kept there in pretrial detention for a year.
After this online attack for my past work, I criticized announcing the name of the suspect before the prosecution could conclude its findings—something that could jeopardize the integrity of the investigation and its independence. I also highlighted how the defendant’s previous detention had been handled within the wider context of how the state is responsible for radicalization, particularly of young people, in prison. These comments brought on a severe media attack against me from various television hosts. My private accounts were hacked, posting personal photos of me and accusing me of committing treason and aiding terrorism. Furthermore, some pro-state lawyers filed complaints to the State Security Prosecution accusing me of inciting the church bombing, demanding I be barred from travel. My law firm was attacked and vandalized, and I had to leave my house fearing further attacks. My life was completely destroyed—I couldn’t practice law in Egypt again. Since then, we’ve repeatedly seen lawyers being accused of terrorism for carrying out their work—something that continues today.
I left Egypt in 2017 to the United States to pursue a master’s degree in international law, with the hopes to continue working for the same cause—this time using international law tools and mechanisms, and to start my life again with my husband who suffered from state reprisals himself. While we pay the price for our activism in exile, others have suffered much worse fates. According to the Egyptian Bar Association, more than 80 lawyers are currently in prison because of their work. Others have faced severe reprisals—such as travel bans and asset freezing, while others have lost their lives.
This is the reality of a besieged legal profession in Egypt, that took the fall along with revolution and all its goals. Yet, many Egyptian lawyers still serve the cause of human rights amid severe repercussions. From prison, detained lawyers use their own detention renewal hearings to speak to the judges of detainees’ rights and prison conditions. Others continue to work on the ground knowing that they might get arrested or disappeared because of their work. I live in my exile knowing that I might never be able to live in my home again, fearing reprisals against my family in Egypt or even myself but I continue to advocate for a better Egypt because as I see it, lawyers are the only remaining power capable of navigating the state’s complicated and vicious legislation and practices in the interest of accountability and justice.