Across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, lawyers work to support those organizing on-the-ground; to mobilize the legal community; and to bring about systemic change. In Lawyering for Change, TIMEP’s Legal Unit conducts a series of interviews with lawyers, legal practitioners, and academics who explore the roles that lawyers have played throughout the region’s protest movements and revolutions over the last decade.
In this Q&A on Egypt, the Legal Unit speaks to Egyptian lawyer Ahmed Ezzat, who is currently a PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge and formerly researcher at Amnesty International and co-founder of the Cairo-based Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression.
TIMEP: Since the January 25 Revolution, what role have lawyers in Egypt played to support those mobilizing on the streets, online, and in political spaces?
AE: Since the outbreak of the 25 January Revolution, lawyers played several critical roles in supporting mobilization efforts within the Egyptian political sphere. Engaging in what has been termed as “cause lawyering” or “human rights lawyering,” they have focused on confronting repressive state juridical strategies, including using the law as a tool to legitimize the crackdown on dissent. The role of lawyers is usually confined to the area of representing victims of human rights violations before courts, but what they do goes far beyond direct legal aid. They constitute a legal infrastructure for local and international rights groups seeking to understand the legal structure of the Egyptian state and its legislative and judicial strategies. Egyptian cause lawyers also have a long history of successful attempts to make long term legal changes through strategic litigation.
With the enactment of the draconian 2013 Anti-Protest Law and the Counter-Terrorism Law in 2015, cause lawyers were at the forefront of the struggle against laws that effectively led to the criminalization and elimination of all forms of peaceful protest in Egypt. Lawyers’ work in this regard involved representing thousands of defendants prosecuted under these laws—highlighting the existential risks they pose on civic space—and challenging the legality and constitutionality in front of different platforms, including the Supreme Constitutional Court. All these battles were not fought solely in court rooms or in lawyers’ offices, but in the media and online, as well as in international human rights fora such as the UN Human Rights Council. They stood side-by-side with thousands of families whose loved ones were imprisoned due to the application of these draconian legislations. Having access to case files, legal proceedings, and court minutes also has helped lawyers to provide Egyptian and international human rights movements with a vivid picture of the magnitude of violations, their patterns and state actors involved in their commission.
Since July 2013, the Egyptian executive authorities embraced the narrative of “no interference in the judiciary’s work” in response to calls from rights groups inside and outside Egypt to release prisoners incarcerated after unfair and mass trials. Lawyers aptly exposed the contradictions of this narrative by revealing that this very judiciary has been complicit by failing to investigate torture complaints or hold perpetrators accountable. Lawyers have been able to show that a major part of the judiciary deliberately facilitates impunity for human rights abusers and holds critics in detention in flagrant abuse of their powers.
In employing court rooms in political conflicts that interest Egyptians broadly, Egyptian lawyers have been able to provide the public with certain facts in cases of pivotal importance and challenge the state’s accusatory tone against its critics. When the state ceded Egyptian sovereignty over the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, human rights lawyers used its defense in the case to show the hypocrisy of the state’s narrative that critics lack patriotism and endanger national security by disseminating false news and criticizing the human rights situation to international media and rights groups. In this case, anti-government lawyers were ready to sacrifice their freedom for the sake of protecting state sovereignty over its lands while state authorities, including the president, were working tirelessly to prove that the two islands did not belong to Egypt. In these kinds of cases, cause lawyers show the political importance of their profession and the possibilities law and courts offer to engage with state policies even in time of unprecedented repression.
TIMEP: Today, Egypt is one of the region’s top jailers of lawyers. How would you say the practice of law has evolved in recent years, particularly amid an ongoing crackdown on all forms of organizing, as well as a particular crackdown on the legal community?
AE: Human rights lawyers do not perform their duties in a vacuum, but as an integral part of the wider social movement in Egypt. Despite the heroic performance of some lawyers, the continued restrictions over their freedom to work in human rights cases has seriously diminished their impact. This is an undisputed fact, especially after the unprecedented crackdown on the opposition and the human rights movement since the arrival of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to power. Control over the judiciary and parliament has also weakened lawyers’ influence in adjudicating political and social matters.
Lawyers have been subjected to several blows by the state since 2013 through detention, enforced disappearance and even physical attacks by state security agents in broad daylight because of their work in defending victims of human rights violations and challenging the state’s juridical narrative justifying repression. Due to the rise of the number of imprisoned lawyers and other threats and harassment, others may be reluctant to work in cases of a human rights nature to avoid being targeted. Many lawyers have left human rights organizations and started private law firms. In addition, some lawyers now prefer not to speak up about abuses they witness against detainees in courts or prosecutors’ offices.
Creating this intimidating environment for lawyers was not a coincidence but came as a clear message from the state that the role of lawyers should be confined to completing formalities without any effective participation in legal proceedings or in supporting their clients.
On the other hand, the state’s control of professional unions has weakened the role of the Lawyers’ Syndicate in supporting and defending its members from harassment, leaving lawyers without any kind of protection.
TIMEP: On the other hand, Egypt has a history of cause lawyering and strategic litigation. Reflecting on that history, do you think there’s space today to leverage the law to bring about change even still? What might those spaces look like?
AE: Notwithstanding the challenges faced by cause lawyers, many of them are still able to work on several strategic cases, particularly in protecting and promoting economic and social rights.
In recent years, some lawyers have been focusing on labor rights in fighting for a fair wage, adequate social insurance, and safe and healthy work conditions. Lawyers also represent victims of arbitrary and unfair dismissals in their cases against employers to obtain compensation. Other lawyers focus on the right to health by challenging state policy in addressing the impact of COVID-19 and the lack of a national strategy for prevention or vaccination. For example, a recent case was filed before the administrative judiciary calling on the government to offer vaccination for free.
On the level of civil and political rights, in addition to the daily engagement with cases of arbitrary detention, lawyers use strategic litigation to challenge recent practices such as adding activists to terrorist lists.
Feminist lawyers also play an important role in cases of violence and discrimination against women. This work involves personal status cases, such as matters of inheritance, marriage and divorce for Muslims and non-Muslims, and sexual and other gender-based violence cases.
These examples show that despite the unprecedented repression against political opposition and the human rights movement in Egypt, cause lawyering remains vital in supporting various groups fighting for their rights. This role, even if seemingly ineffective at the first glance compared to the pre-2013 period, helps in influencing public opinion able to challenge the status quo in the long term. In this regard, we must not forget, that many of the pre-2011 struggles, such as workers strikes and political protests, used law and juridical platforms in their strategy to promote their causes.
Another positive point is that despite severe restrictions against the human rights movement and the withdrawal of many lawyers from activism, the continuity of the human rights discourse in courts by the remaining lawyers inspires and influences lawyers from outside the human rights community to cause lawyering. This on the long term would help in increasing the hegemony of the human rights discourse among lawyers in general.
TIMEP: There’s a rising number of Egyptian lawyers in diaspora and exile. Is there a role for lawyers abroad and how can they coordinate and collaborate with lawyers and other advocates on-the-ground?
AE: As lawyer’ work requires engagement with national legal institutions, their primary role remains in Egypt. The human rights discourse should also be directed principally at Egyptians. However, that does not mean it is illegitimate or unimportant to communicate with lawyers or human rights groups abroad. Lawyers in exile should be in touch with unions and human rights organizations to campaign in solidarity with their colleagues in custody and to expose the scale of abuses in Egypt to partners of the Egyptian government who support it with financial and military aid despite their knowledge of its appalling human rights record. Lawyers also should use international human rights platforms—including the UN human rights mechanisms—to advance the work of their colleagues on the ground. Furthermore, during these times when spaces of political participation and expression are restricted, lawyers bear a responsibility in thinking about changes and reforms needed for different branches of the justice system, including the police, prosecution authority, and judiciary. Formulating approaches and projects for reforming these institutions in light of available information on their deficiencies would serve any future opportunity for democratization in Egypt.