Independent human rights lawyer, 27-year-old Yasmine Hossam al-Din, has been practicing since 2009 — just in time to experience the rights scene before the revolution, the changes that followed, and the current crackdown on civil society and rights defenders.
She spoke to Mada Masr about the challenges and opportunities that her generation of lawyers encounter, about choosing battles, and keeping her legal practice and political activism separate.
Mada Masr: What triggered your interest in the legal profession and particularly rights?
Yasmine Hossam: I’m from Fayoum, which experienced limited political activity when I was growing up. I was involved with a small group of activists there since 2005. On April 6, 2008, while I was still a student at law school, we staged a small protest and I was arrested.
Those working in the judiciary and the lawyers in my family all wanted me to join them when I graduated. After my arrest, I realized I needed to be in a place where I could help people and not have my work be politicized despite my views.
MM: What are the main lessons you’ve learned from the older generation of human rights lawyers?
YH: When Ahmed Seif talked to a worker, he treated him like a doctor. We learned from him how to sit on the floor and respect the people we represent. He taught us that if a worker gives us a newspaper clipping relating to his case we should consider it to be very important. He taught us not to be arrogant and that, although our names appear in the papers, we’re nothing. He taught us to remain grounded in order to be able to help people.
Our profession has an ego. If you don’t have it, you won’t be able to stand in front of a judge. Despite this, it’s important that we maintain a belief that the defendant in the cage is the focus and not us.
Khaled Ali taught us to be lawyers, just lawyers. Now that we’ve also become activists and television presenters, things are getting mixed up. Khaled taught me that when I’m looking into a case, I’m only a lawyer, and I should use the law, even if it’s a text I don’t approve of. I have to use it and extract something from it in my favor. To be a lawyer regardless of everything is what he showed us.
He also taught us not to be scared of the court and showed us how to stand and tell them, “you are our opponents and we’re not scared of you,” and how to insult them politely without being held accountable for it. He taught us how to be savvy.
Both Khaled Ali and Ahmed Seif taught us how to be professional: that lawyers should only meet their clients in the office, should always wear their robes in court, should speak proper Arabic in court, and know the exact text of the legal articles they’re using.
MM: The tension between human rights lawyers and the authorities, including the police, prosecution and judges, seems to have escalated in recent months. How do you prevent this from harming your interests, or those of your clients?
YH: We’re savvy and we fight, but only when needed. If an officer talks to me badly at the entrance to a police station, I’ll say “never mind sir,” so I can go in and meet the person waiting for me. We sacrifice our dignity a lot, but not to the point of being beaten up or threatened with guns, as has happened to colleagues in the past.
Those arrested on the third anniversary of the January 25 revolution were acquitted, but the authorities refused to release them for four days. I took all the legal action I could: I went to the Interior Ministry and the prosecution, but nothing happened. So I went to Abu Zaabal prison at 11 pm, sat on the floor in front of the prison and said, “you either release them or shoot me, I won’t leave.” The families of the defendants joined me and three hours later they released them.
This pressure often works, but it’s not always safe. I calculate what might be gained from such battles and make my decision accordingly.
It would be ideal if we had the respect of the court and judges, and prosecutors didn’t consider themselves to be gods, thinking that we are beneath them. They discriminate against lawyers and imprison us based on an assumption of immunity. This is something we have to fight.
MM: Your legal practice could be seen in and of itself as political activism due to the kinds of cases you take. How much do you identify with each of these roles: lawyer and activist?
YH: I’m a lawyer. Some people consider me to be an activist; I don’t have a problem with that. As a lawyer, I file reports and follow due process. Most of the time the prosecution shelves my reports.
But I also write on Facebook, contact media and so on, and the fact that I’m a little known politically can serve my cases. I have been a political activist since college, before I started in the legal profession. What I think is bad is when lawyers become political activists and it results in unprofessional practice.
I won’t quit politics, but I also won’t let this affect my professionalism as a lawyer.
MM: How have the ups and downs of the last four years affected your practice?
YH: No matter how much of a crackdown there is currently, public space is still more open than before the revolution. There is space to talk, read, receive reports, and access information. The scope of the work is wider, even if there is more danger.
As rights lawyers, we’ve forgotten what regular courts look like, as much of our work occurs in police territories. Such measures violate our rights.
For example, as I was entering Tora for a session, I was searched by police in an inappropriate way, so I argued. The officer physically and sexually assaulted me. I filed a report, which resulted in a subpoena against me and no consequences for the officer — all for doing my work.
Our colleague, Karim Hamdy, was tortured to death in Matareya and the officers who were accused of killing him were released. There is a constant danger every time we enter a police station or court session.
One of the biggest problems we face is the issuing of legislation in the absence of a parliament and without expert legal advice. 3000 laws have been issued since interim President Adly Mansour took office, and it requires a lot of effort to stay on top of new legislation, hold press conferences, reject laws and fight them in the courts. The constitutional courts are a maze. On top of this there are daily arrests to respond to.
Our struggle is not purely legal. We are often discriminated against because of our defense of political detainees, and sometimes this also impacts our clients.
But, the beauty of our work is creating new groups and solidarities. The Front to Protect Egypt has created legal memorandums that were previously not considered. The current crisis has given way to a lot of creativity and cooperation. Our work is not to reignite the revolution, but to protect it.
This is part of a series of interviews by Mada Masr with human rights workers in Egypt.