In a memorial organized by the Law and Society Research Unit and the Law Department at the American University in Cairo, colleagues and family members of late human rights defender Ahmed Seif al-Islam remembered him as a relentless fighter, a giving mentor, a legal scientist and a creative mind who never despaired.
Seif passed away last month following open-heart surgery after a lifetime of activism that started during his student days in the leftist movement. Both his son Alaa Abd El Fattah and daughter Sanaa Seif were incarcerated on protest-related charges at the time of his death. Sanaa was born after Seif was released from prison following the birth of his middle child, Mona Seif, while he was in detention.
Seif studied law during his five-year incarceration in the 1980s on charges of belonging to an armed leftist cell. Since his release in 1989, he dedicated his life to defending those in need and introduced new practices to the legal and human rights spheres in Egypt. He co-founded the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and instituted Egypt’s human rights movement. He fought multiple and varied cases and won some, which stand as major victories for the oppositional movement in Egypt in the last two decades.
Abd El Fattah, who has since been released pending retrial, spoke of his father’s career and legacy, reflecting on the difficulties for a son to mourn the death of the public figure that is his father by addressing the personal.
“On a personal level, I feel the loss and the panic and fixate on the idea that my father will never tell (my son) Khaled bedtime stories again, but on the public level, we don’t need to panic or feel loss because he left the key to his practice available for anyone, he left all we need to continue his path.”
Abd El Fattah spoke of the “scare” that hit many of Seif’s loss, especially at a time when Egypt is going through one of its worst waves of repression. He spoke of how this loss falls within a rising sea of despair among revolutionaries. But he reminded that Seif, out of despair, resorted one day to armed struggle, because he was, “like us, tired and anxious about making sense of the world.”
Abd El Fattah was weary of over glorifying his father, which he believes Seif himself staunchly fought against.
“My father was not super-human, he was like us. He always told people about the difficulties he faced, about his weaknesses and mistakes, not out of humility but to deliver a higher message, which is that all you need is to insist on defending what is right.”
Abd El Fattah moved between the different lives of Seif, from his participation in the Palestinian resistance movement in South Lebanon, to establishing a publishing house in one of Cairo’s low-income neighborhoods. Abd El Fattah remembered a playful Seif taking him and 13 other children to Fayoum to attend a court session, when he would ask them, “Do you want to get lost?” When the children said ‘yes,’ he swerved off road, giving them an adventure and exposure to a new part of Egypt they had never thought of.
“He wasn’t a typical lawyer.” This is what many who shared in his remembrance said about him. And this is why the Law and Society Research Unit consider his approach to the law and its engagement with society to be exemplary, as Amr Shalakany, head of the unit and the event organizer, said.
“He looked at the legal text, not as sacred or an embodiment of justice, but merely a reflection of the balance of power in the parliament that makes the laws. He was not a slave to the legal text, he negotiated with it and taught us to deal with it as researchers and investigators, not just as lawyers,” Khaled Ali, human rights lawyer and former presidential candidate, said.
This is how Seif instituted an indelible legacy in the field of strategic litigation, which enabled human rights lawyers to change several repressive laws over the years.
Ali recalled Seif proposing a new unit in the Hisham Mubarak Law Center for constitutional litigation, which he headed alongside him and another colleague.
The unit specialized in cross checking laws with the constitution in order to challenge unconstitutional, repressive laws and make sure that positive ones were put into effect. The unit would then design a court case to present their grievances to the Supreme Constitutional Court, where they fought for the abolition of several laws. This is how seminal battles like the national minimum wage and the privatization of the health sector were fought.
Hence, Abd El Fattah remembered that his dad always reminded him and others, “We can continue our resistance through the courts.”
Hossam Bahgat, who founded the leading Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights organization and who is now an investigative journalist with Mada Masr, reminded that values and principles aside, Seif’s skills and legal talent set him apart.
“I learnt from him that you can’t be an activist and not good at the trade. Seif went into courtrooms and astonished many with his legal talent, not with political slogans,” Bahgat said.
He recalled that Seif would go into his office days before a hearing and only emerge to head to court, having locked himself up to formulate his arguments.
His preparation papers, filled with charts, drawings and intense brainstorming, reveal that he approached his cases with the mind of a scientist and not a traditional lawyer, Bahgat added.
Abd El Fattah recalled how Seif stunned a judge one day by using Google Earth imagery of maps as evidence in a courtroom predating technology.
Seif’s compassion and goodness were spoken of repeatedly at the memorial.
Human rights lawyer Mohamed Abdel Aziz spoke of Seif, who he knew as a mentor and his own lawyer when he was one of the defendants in the case known as Sarando in 2007, in which farmers were falsely accused of sabotaging land.
Abdel Aziz recounted how Seif didn’t see his role as a lawyer confined to the courtroom and always said that supporting the defendant through this time is a greater duty.
Seif was always the last to leave the courtroom, comforting defendants and forgetting about travel plans, TV appearances and other obligations while he immersed himself in this aspect of what he considered to be his duty. Seif used to spend the night with Abdel Aziz as he hid out in the Hisham Mubarak office when he was wanted, he recalled.
Similarly, Gamal Eid, head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information recalled a situation from his early days, which for him sum up Seif’s priorities in his practice.
In 1994, Eid recalled that Seif was on the defense team in a case involving the censoring of the “Migrant” film of renowned filmmaker Youssef Shahin, starring blockbuster star Yousra. On the same day Seif had a session in this case, Eid had just started a session representing 17 striking workers who were injured in a police attack in a lower profile case, known as the Kafral-Dawar strike. All the lawyers in the Hisham Mubarak center at the time went to the film session and Eid was nervous about representing the workers alone. Seif gave him a boost of confidence, telling him he could do it and sent him on his way.
However, in front of the court, Eid found Seif getting out of his trademark Fiat 128 to attend the session with him. He told him that 100 lawyers would line up to defend Shahin while the workers had no one.
Eid remembered one piece of advice from Seif that he would live by. “Help people, he said, regardless of the result, make them feel that your spirit and heart is with them, with no discrimination make everyone feel important.”
Ali said that Seif’s two main strengths were his ability to listen and his eagerness to teach. He always advised lawyers that the more intently you listen, the more capable you are of understanding the grievances of the person and helping them.
Ali also spoke of Seif’s “black bag rule,” where he would advise his associates to always go through the black bag that poor people with a grievance or ongoing court case typically carry around, containing papers ripe with details concerning their cases from near and far. Ali said Seif was never dismissive of anyone speaking to him, be it an illiterate defendant or a new lawyer.
Mentoring and pushing for a human rights movement were other repeatedly referenced attributes of Seif’s legacy.
Bahgat spoke about Seif helping him out, not only with the conception of his nascent human rights organization, but also offering him a loan of LE5000 to start the initiative.
Many attribute to Seif the introduction of the volunteer culture to the legal profession and the use of the law as a tool for a bigger political vision.
Most of the volunteer legal groups that have been crucial in recent years in the support of popular movements were born in the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and under Seif’s mentoring, including the Front to Protect Egypt’s Protesters and the No To Military Trials of Civilians group.
But the leftist Seif transcended political or social affiliations in his commitment to personal rights, with his defendants ranging from homosexuals, to Islamists, to those accused of believing they are prophets.
Throughout the last year, Seif took the unpopular job of defending some Muslim Brotherhood affiliated protesters, following this same commitment.
Seif was held up as an example for holding on to hope and continuing to fight in the darkest moments and doing it with unbeatable cheerfulness.
“I saw anger in his eyes, I saw sorrow, but I never saw despair or fear,” Ali recalled.
In light of the desire to continue this legacy of giving and hope, Shalakany spoke of raising funds for a fellowship in Seif’s name and to start archiving and publishing his research.
Abd El Fattah, who is yet to go to court for his retrial, summarized his father’s quest.
“All that is needed from us is to insist on justice. We don’t need to be victorious. We just need to insist on justice and hold on to that.”