Since 2014, Egyptian lawyers defending minorities against unjust prosecution have been facing increasing difficulties in doing their jobs. This is especially the case when lawyers themselves belong to religious minority groups or are women who do not conform to social norms. Tackling this topic is of paramount importance, as social justice cannot be achieved if human rights lawyers cannot do their work without being harassed and threatened by authorities.
There are several reasons and political events that could explain why Egyptian lawyers—especially those involved in cases involving religious and gender minorities—have been facing worsening work conditions. There has been a clear erosion of the role of the lawyers’ syndicate in protecting and defending lawyers’ rights. Indeed, since 2014, the security forces’ influence over the syndicate has been more evident, as the latter has lost its independence and lawyers stopped having the same immunity and the feeling of safety in defending their clients. As a result, hundreds of lawyers have faced prosecution, asset freezes, and travel bans in the last five years. In 2021 alone, there were 80 human rights lawyers in prison, as the crackdown continues.
Egypt has a great history of human rights lawyers who were able to use the law to defend leftist and Islamic organizations. It was easy to find a lawyer to defend clients’ rights in courts and police stations, without lawyers fearing for their safety or freedom. And lawyers obtained acquittals, as the judiciary was more independent. Since 2014, however, the modern Egyptian state has worked diligently to restrict the independence and transparency of the judiciary and the prosecution offices. Lawyers have been marginalized and their role has been reduced in political issues of a religious or gender-based nature. Lawyers have a hard time obtaining acquittals or properly defending their clients. The number of political prisoners in Egyptian prisons is increasing, and many prisoners stay in pre-trial detention for two years before being charged with new offenses to renew their pre-trial detention. In addition, there has been an unprecedented number of death penalties in the last few years, a worrisome sign highlighting the changes in the judiciary system.
Another issue that human rights lawyers face is that not all of them are treated the same. Well-known lawyers who are affiliated with known figures of the opposition are treated with more respect than their peers who are still new in the field; they are allowed to get into court buildings without hassle, in addition to being able to access their case files. Meanwhile, tens of lawyers find themselves prevented from entering courtrooms and are under constant threat of being arrested. Minority lawyers have even received calls from the state security offices threatening them with detention if they publicly share any details about ill treatment their clients face during detention.
There are more layers to the discrimination between lawyers. For instance, female minority rights lawyers suffer more than male lawyers in most cases and veiled female lawyers face less problems than their non-veiled counterparts. Not to mention that these occurrences are more common outside of the country’s capital. In other words, lawyers’ geographic location, gender, religion, and political ideology play a role in the number of obstacles they face in defending minorities.
The risk of defending minorities
“I don’t photocopy dirty cases.” This is what a session’s circuit clerk told human rights lawyer H.R. when he tried to obtain his client’s case file involving gender minorities in 2017. This was the first human rights case he volunteered for, a hard choice due to how controversial some of the cases can be. A good number of lawyers complained about feeling very anxious while pleading in any case of a political nature or in the public eye. This comes at a time when Egypt is holding the largest number of lawyers in detention to date. One of the human rights lawyers interviewed by TIMEP recounted the time when in 2019 he went with his colleague to the prosecution office to attend a retrial session, only to see his colleague get arrested and handcuffed. He has not felt safe since that incident. He goes to work, never knowing if he would make it back home.
Since July 2013 and the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi by the army, the transparency of the judiciary system has reached its lowest levels. Judges and prosecution investigators are nominated based on the interior security head office’s preferences, and prosecution investigators have the same attitude as police officers. Some judges are known for their loyalty to the regime, and it sometimes goes as far as having judges ask lawyers questions about their relationship with their clients, and where they got to know one another. There is a lack of professionalism and in certain cases, of predetermined inclinations governing the investigations and trials. A prosecutor in a governorate in the North of the Egyptian Delta questioned the motivations of S.M., a Christian lawyer defending clients accused of belonging to the Islamic movement and Muslim Brotherhood: “Aren’t you a Christian, sir? Why are you [defending] them and where do you know them from?” This questioning is not an exception. A number of lawyers interviewed by TIMEP have complained that when they defended Christian and atheist clients, some judges dealt with them in a threatening way.
After the Rabaa massacre in August 2013 which resulted in the death of at least 900 people, and the arrival of Abdel Fattah El Sisi to the presidency, the Egyptian government became more aggressive and violent toward any critical voice. At first, state institutions only directed these hostilities toward members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, but by the end 2019, they started arresting lawyers, politicians, journalists, and researchers. During this period, human rights lawyers found themselves wanted at the National Security headquarters to be questioned about their roles in sharing detainees’ testimonies. In addition, they were intimidated and threatened with imprisonment if they did not stop working on these cases or speaking about them. Numerous lawyers were arrested, making these threats a reality.
Female lawyers working on human rights cases were also the target of intimidation campaigns. F.S. recounted that a prosecutor once told her a case was “risky” and would “put a mark on her head.” That was an indirect message to scare her away from the case. F.S. believes that this comment was not only directed at her because she was a human rights lawyer, but also because she was a woman working in the field. Female lawyers are often told that working on political cases would cause them troubles too difficult for women to endure, so they should refrain from working on such cases.
“All orders come from above,” said S.M., a minority rights lawyer and researcher, in reference to the interior security department, which decides on the release of political prisoners, not the judge nor the prosecution. S.M. went on to explain that he could not meet with his client or even plead on his behalf separately, as court sessions are crowded with thousands of prisoners at a time. Only the lucky ones manage to get out of the cage for a word with the judge or even get their name called out in a court session. In fact, if one of the accused is released, it is usually due to a decision from parties outside of the courtroom.
Unsafe workplaces for female lawyers
A few courts and prosecution offices situated in some of Cairo’s privileged neighborhoods were renovated to become more accessible and hygienic for the lawyers to use while they wait for their sessions to start, such as providing proper toilets. Nevertheless, these are exceptions, as other courts in the capital and in the rest of the country, remain disregarded.
The vast majority of court buildings are still considered an unsafe environment for women. The simplest of things are a hassle, like finding safe restrooms accessible to women, or smoking a cigarette without facing harassment. In addition, prosecutors marginalize female lawyers and undermine their abilities, handing them personal status cases which are considered to be less tiring and easier to handle. Some judges also harass female lawyers by objectifying their bodies and looking at them in ways that they would not with their male peers, while also doubting their abilities as lawyers and testing them in public. F.S. says that “female lawyers get comments such as ‘you should speak about the legal aspect, tell us a little bit about the law,’ even when we are citing the law.”
In addition, it is customary for male lawyers to be entrusted with talking about jurisprudence and the legal aspects of a case, while their female colleagues are handed the human and personal aspect. As M.S. puts it: “They leave the legal defense to men and we get the emotional part.” Women are also required to be quiet and keep a low voice, and should not plead with passion.
Describing the obstacles she faces in her daily work as a lawyer and minority rights researcher, M.S. emphasizes the prevalence of “toxic masculinity in Egyptian courts.” The work environment in courts in general is not welcoming to the presence of women, with the lack of access to facilities and the limited presence of female lawyers. Courts in Egypt are overcrowded and people often accidentally push one another as they walk in the hallways, making it difficult for female lawyers to work, especially with the harassment they face in their daily lives. Similarly, this prevents them from feeling comfortable before the judge as they stand in a very narrow area next to their male colleagues, the opponents, and a good number of journalists. This is amplified in important cases or during renewal sessions in state security cases where the number of lawyers present in court can reach hundreds, which makes representing one’s client more like a battle than a court session.
A.S., who belongs to an older generation of lawyers, talked to TIMEP about the battles she fought in the early 1990s in order to fight for her freedom in dressing the way she pleased in the courtroom. She often wore her lawyer’s gown to cover her clothes before entering the court building in order to avoid the looks and comments of the men there. This issue has been prevalent in the court culture of Egypt for a long while now.
Working as a minority rights’ lawyer in Egypt while also being a woman is not easy at all, especially with the daily obstacles they face, making it much harder to maintain their career. They deal with variation in salaries and personal problems linked to engaging with this type of work, putting them under constant pressure from their loved ones. “I decided to put my career [as a lawyer] on hold and only continue working on my research, in order to avoid the psychological exhaustion that I face in my daily encounters in the street and in government facilities,” explained M.S.
Lawyers of minorities rights in Egypt are in the spotlight due to their work, and are monitored by the Egyptian security institutions, making their work unsafe and challenging and putting them under the constant threat of imprisonment. Immense efforts are needed to narrate and archive the experiences of these lawyers, as they, despite it all, still choose to continue fighting for what they believe in.