April/May 1994, Page 50
Egyptian Human Rights Advocate Bahey El-Din Hassan
By Janet McMahon
Most of what Americans know about human rights in the Middle East and other parts of the world originates in reports issued by organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, or, indeed, the U.S. State Department. Rarely does an outsider get a glimpse of the life of a human rights advocate who is a citizen living in one of the countries in question.
On a U.S. visit sponsored by the New York-based Middle East Watch, secretary-general Bahey El-Din Hassan of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights described for the Washington Report the role of a human rights worker in his native Egypt. What emerged was a picture of a dedicated individual willing to endure political isolation in his own country while compiling the key statistics that enable the United Nations to mobilize world opinion and secure government compliance and cooperation, however limited, with international human rights treaties.
The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR),which Middle East Watch Associate Director Virginia N. Sherry describes as "the independent human rights organization in Egypt," was founded in 1985. Mr. Hassan served from 1988 until February 1994, after his return from the U.S., as secretary-general of the organization, which is officially banned by the Egyptian government.
As Hassan was beginning his early December visit to the United States, John Shattuck, U.S. assistant secretary of state for human rights, extracted from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, during a Cairo meeting, a pledge that the Egyptian government will not condone torture or other human rights violations. At a press conference following his meeting with Egypt's president, the American diplomat conveyed Washington's support for the work of EOHR, saying the U.S. "shares its values."
Hassan described those values as "the minimum standards of human rights, " emphasizing fair trials and an end to torture and forced confessions. These are not merely theoretical concerns:
"As an Egyptian intellectual," Hassan noted, "I want to make sure that [terrorists] are really in jail, not free to assassinate or bomb." That requires, however, that the actual perpetrators are arrested, tried and convicted. This assurance is "not provided by the military courts" under the state of emergency in effect since the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, Hassan said.
As an example, the Egyptian activist cited a 1986 case where security police arrested several members of a militant organization for the attempted assassination of two former interior ministers. The suspects were tortured until theysigned confessions. A week before their trial was to begin, the police realized they had arrested the wrong people, who could have been sentenced to death. Not only were the rights of innocent people violated, Hassan pointed out, but "the real criminals remain at large."
Although Egypt's constitution prohibits torture, and the government has ratified the International Convention Against Torture, Bahey El-Din Hassan described torture in Egypt as "widespread-not only against fundamentalists, but also against politicians, Christians and ordinary citizens.
"Torture has become an unpunished crime in Egypt," he said. But since "the emergency laws do not justify torture, the government denies that there is torture."
The Egyptian government is, however, susceptible to international influence, as President Mubarak's December meeting with U.S. State Department official Shattuck indicates. Earlier pressure to improve Egypt's human rights record had been brought to bear at two meetings in Geneva of the U.N.'s International Committee on Human and Civil Rights. Hassan explained that all states which are party to the International Convention Against Torture are obliged to file a report every four years documenting their compliance.
Last July, the U.N. "received complaints from a variety of organizations" regarding Egypt's human rights record, Tassan said. At a second meeting in November, the U.N. gave the Egyptian government a negative report, and asked it to cooperate with EOHR. Although the Egyptian governmental delegation complained that the U.N. committee on human rights was working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) rather than with Egyptian government agencies, Hassan said, since the Geneva meetings the Mubarak government has shown "some flexibility in responding to complaints that don't involve security issues."
Bahey El-Din Hassan is a 45-year-old graduate of Cairo University who earned degrees in chemistry and geology. He and his wife have one daughter. A journalist by trade, he writes on international affairs for the Egyptian daily Al Gondwreyya, and received the Annual Award of Journalism of the Egyptian Press Syndicate in 1987.
A founding member of EOHR, Hassan has authored dozens of articles on human rights in the last two years alone. Among them are "A New Agenda for Human Rights," "Human Rights and the New World Order, " and "We Have not Forgotten Farog Fouda, " the secular Muslim journalist assassinated by Islamic militants in 1992.
Although Hassan spoke of the "occasional detention and torture" of members of the EOHR, particularly in the years 1989-91, the Egyptian government for the most part seems to prefer a stance of benign neglect, characterized by its failure to cooperate with or respond to EOHR inquiries. "With the media controlled by the government," explains Hassan, "there is no access to radio, television and newspapers. We have selective coverage with the opposition press," e.g., Islamic or leftist organs.
With the opposition's "selective coverage" comes its "selective support. " Hassan spoke of EOHR's "love-hate relationship" with Egyptian opposition groups, which may ask for EOHR's help on specific issues but do not back it on an ongoing basis.
Because "no party or paper or association works for the advancement of human rights without political considerations," Hassan maintained, those on the front lines of the struggle for human rights in Egypt comprise "just a few individuals." Facing an indifferent government and uninformed public, they are isolated from mainstream Egyptian society. Ironically, the Islamists, avowed opponents of the Mubarak government, have access to television and other media outlets.
Hassan identified assassinated President Anwar Sadat as the leader who "opened the door" to militant Islam by making an alliance with Islamists against the left and by backing a constitutional amendment to add Islamic law, or shariah, to the secular legal code. The government, Hassan explained, increasingly backs its own brand of "good" Islam, exemplified in Egypt by Al Azhar University, and is reluctant to associate with or protect secularists.
The government is thus "abandoning and alienating its friends," the very people who would support it against attacks from religious militants, Hassan maintained. "If this policy continues, " he warned, "we are going to sooner, be a fundamentalist state. "
Bahey El-Din Hassan's analysis, attributing the rise of "Islamic fundamentalism" in Egypt to Egyptian government attempts to use it to neutralize leftist opposition, bears an intriguing similarity to the Israeli government's early support of Hamas in Palestine as a means of countering the secular PLO's political influence. The lesson in both cases, Hassan said, is that "the mass production of fundamentalists was initiated by the regime itself. "
To avoid such a scenario, according to Hassan, governments should expand, not limit, the political choices open to citizens. As one whose personal and professional well-being may be in jeopardy in his own country, Bahey EI-Din Hassan expresses confidence in the ability of Egyptians to adapt to a multiparty political environment. He says it is precisely because opportunities to express political opposition are available only to Islamic groups that religious radicals have attained their current position of strength.
Even the former secretary-general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights has one reservation regarding the right of free speech, however. "Freedom of speech doesn't mean permitting hate speech," Hassan maintains. "At the moment there is complete free speech for hate speech, but you can't respond."
Janet McMahon is the managing editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.