Human rights in focus: Aida Seif al-Dawla

aida seif al-dawla.jpg

Aida Seif al-Dawla

In this conversation, veteran human rights defender Aida Seif al-Dawla speaks about locating the human rights movement in the wider political struggle. Traveling between the political movements and human rights institutions, Seif al-Dawla reflects on addressing torture at the intersections of psychiatry, human rights and political activism.

Seif al-Dawla is the cofounder of the Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and the Egyptian Association Against Torture.

Mada Masr: Let’s start with the relationship between the rights movement and political activism. How have they been related to one another other?

Aida Seif al-Dawla: The rights movement was not tied to political activism, which was concentrated in universities, especially in the 1970s. The human rights movement was not an avenue for political activism or a way to escape its failure. For me, political activism was always parallel to human rights work.

The first time I engaged in human rights work was through the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. When I was working with them, the 1989 ironworkers strike took place and many workers were arrested. The organization issued a strongly worded statement demanding the release of the workers.

As a result, many EOHR members were arrested and their old files detailing their political activity in leftist groups re-opened. Mohamed al-Sayed Saeed, Hisham Mubarak and Kamal Khalil were among those arrested. It was a famous case and they were badly tortured. I remember one of us going to visit Mohamed in prison and not recognizing him from the level of torture he had undergone. Hisham also lost his hearing because of torture.

We used to hear about torture a lot but this time it was very close to us. When they were released, we went to file a report on torture. At the time, I was working at Ain Shams University, while Suzanne Fayyad was one of the co-founders of the psychiatry department in Palestine Hospital and Abdallah Mansour was the vice president of the Airport Hospital. But even with all these connections, we could not issue an official report proving that the detainees were tortured, although some people were sympathetic. In this period, we discovered that while torture can be connected to political heroism, it has another face, one that is tied to anger, humiliation and a sense of inability. So we decided me, Suzanne and Abdallah to set up a psychological rehabilitation clinic.

MM: How did the Nadeem Center start and how did human rights activism and political activism intersect in its backdrop?

AS: We decided to set up a psychological clinic to offer rehabilitation and support to survivors of torture. We considered establishing it as part of EOHR but we disagreed on the level of confidentiality. We thought that patient files should remain confidential reflecting the nature of the relationship between a doctor and patient. But the board of trustees refused and we decided to establish the Nadeem Center independently. This was in 1993.

We decided to focus on offering psychological rehabilitation away from all other considerations. But early on we realized that our reading of the situation had been wrong. We expected to be mostly dealing with torture survivors who are political activists. But from 1993 till 2000, we dealt with only one political case.

None of the other cases had anything to do with politics. They were citizens and the one thing they had in common was their socio-economic marginalization. We discovered that torture happens for the strangest of reasons, and not always to extract confessions. Sometimes it is simply to terrorize or prove that police are a higher class than the rest of the population, a master to be respected. So if a policeman insults a young man by cursing his mother and the young man objects, this could result in days of electrocution and beating inside police stations. Torture is also used to pressure the victim for some financial gain, be it a house or a piece of land.

We also discovered that torture has no map and that where there are police stations, there is torture and mistreatment as well.

The relationship between the doctor and the patient seeking psychological rehabilitation is different from other medical encounters, because the survivor will bear the brunt of any decision taken by the doctor. The treatment is taking place in the same country where the torture happened, and under the same authority of the state and its security apparatus. We are not talking about a rehabilitation process for a political refugee for example. The survivor will always be confronted by those who tortured him.

Finally, we discovered something that ending up governing our development. A lot of people come to us knowing that their rights were violated and that they have been humiliated and harmed from torture. They were approached to tell their stories, especially when some newspapers published fabricated stories and images accusing them of committing various crimes. So we started publishing. They also wanted legal support in regaining their rights. So throughout the years, the clinic developed into a medical rights organization.

In the earlier period, we would refer cases asking for legal support to the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and other organizations. Then we decided to establish a legal unit within the center. Later on, with rising problems and pressure, we canceled this unit.

Until 2000, we publicized our services as a center for psychological rehabilitation for torture survivors, regardless of who committed violence against whom. So we used to receive women facing domestic violence. With the increasing numbers, we decided in 2000 to divide the center into a program for the psychological rehabilitation of torture survivors and a program for women facing violence. We could afford to do that, with the few extra pounds we had at the end of each month, rather than having to choose between treating a torture survivor and a beaten or raped woman.

MM: Let’s go back to the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights that was one of the first places to institutionalize human rights work — is that correct?

AS: As far as I know, there was no organization preceding EOHR. But I have had increasing reservations about linking the human rights struggle with institutions. When we were university students protesting for democracy or against corruption, at the end of the day, these were human rights demands. It is understandable that when students belong to political parties, their struggle takes on a political outlook. But human rights is ultimately a political struggle, be it a partisan or non-partisan one.

I also have reservations about the notion of the movement. I think the beginnings of the human rights movement in Egypt was actually with the [January 25] revolution. Before that, there wasn’t a human rights movement, but only human rights organizations. When we talk about a movement, we are talking something that extends to activities on the ground and I think we only reached this with the revolution. Groups like No to Military Trials for Civilians, A Nation Without Torture, Freedom for the Brave and the youth going around police stations and morgues to ascertain that martyrs’ rights are not completely lost are what we can call a human rights movement. Otherwise, we are talking about organizations.

This was exactly the issue of contention that led to the explosion of EOHR. There were two tendencies. The first saw human rights as something that is done in offices by professionals and experts who know the law by heart, while the second thought that for the movement to grow, it needs to give the streets the key to human rights activism. I belonged to the second camp, but we were badly defeated and eventually kicked out of the organization.

MM: Was the first camp’s tendency coming from a certain political orientation or was it more of a way to negotiate for the sake of survival?

AS: It was a political orientation and it took explicit shape when there were direct accusations against the second camp for being politicized. A report was written against us [and filed to the authorities], where it was said that we were members of the Communist Party and that we were trying to hijack EOHR.

MM: Does the human rights umbrella represent a certain transcendence of political divisions and ideologies? For example, you were all involved at some point in political activism from different standpoints, but you decided to unite under one umbrella despite your differences.

AS: Human rights activism won’t replace political activism. But the human rights umbrella can unite people of different ideologies only if those people are genuinely committed to human rights without wavering. In other words, when you are against the death penalty, you are against it all the way. So you would be against the death sentence for Hosni Mubarak and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi alike. If you are for personal, social and political rights, then you should support the rights of women, LGBT people, and you would support everyone’s freedom of expression.

Organizations working with this logic are very few. During the Queen Boat case in 2001, when over 50 men faced charges of habitual debauchery and obscene behavior, there were human rights organizations whose directors announced that they were against homosexuality.

There is a generational gap in human rights work. Today, after the revolution, there is no one working in human rights who doesn’t have some sort of political background. But there was a generation who had no political background and for whom human rights was just a job. Dealing with human rights with this logic is very problematic. The intersection between human rights and politics is important.

If political parties adopted the principles of human rights, we would see a huge difference because there are things that cannot be done by human rights defenders alone. There are things that can only be done by an opposition party trying to reach power, not trying to befriend those in power. We are not in a time where political players are collaborating with human rights organizations.

MM: How did you deal with the institutionalization of the human rights work, with all that entails from writing budgets to creating organizational structures? How did you create a balance between institutional work and the voluntary nature of this kind of work (such as working extra hours, responding to emergencies)?

AS: We started in a small private apartment that belonged to Suzanne. We didn’t need any capital back then. We started as a small group — two doctors and an assistant. Before developing the two programs, our budget was more like a household budget.

When we started discussing the issue of funding we knew we were going to enter thorny ground. That’s why we had clear conditions: for example, both American funding and any conditional funding was completely rejected. We also committed from the beginning to not increasing the highest wage beyond three times the lowest wage.

I think we were lucky because we didn’t have some of the problems occurring in other organizations. In most of the cases, doctors applying to work with us were specialized and it was clear to them that human rights work is not limited to deskwork. So we were very lucky because people choosing to work in this field are very different from those going to establish private clinics and hospitals.

MM: Is there a change in the way torture is practiced against more marginalized citizens? The story as we know it is that the lesser known faces, who are invisible to the public, are the ones who are tortured, despite the fact that a small number of these cases did permeate the public consciousness. But at the end of the day, people spoke fiercely against torture in the wake of the torture and death of Khaled Saeed, the young Alexandrian man who carried traits of the middle class.

AS: Violence and torture are reversely proportional with the expected reaction when the case is publicized. If a poor man, unknown to anyone, enters the police station and the cops torture him, no reaction is expected. But if the man is well-known, the opposite is true. But today, the ceiling of what the Ministry of Interior has allowed itself is higher. The way in which well-known activist Alaa Abd El Fattah was arrested and beaten [in November 2013] is a sign of this escalation, but also of the police settling accounts with activists, as we see in other cases of assaults on well-known dissidents. In general, no one is safe anymore.

MM: Is torture a chaotic habit that has been inherited and accumulated over the years in the institutional practice of the security apparatus, or is it more of a state policy? 

AS: Torture is part of a state policy. It is not only that the state fails to stop torture but there are laws that limit citizens’ ability to have direct arbitration. It is very hard to get a criminal case set to look into the incident, as it has to go through the prosecutor general who is a political figure himself. He has the right to reject a case without offering his reasons and the decision cannot be appealed unless new evidence emerges. Policemen don’t pay for torture tools and rooms from their salaries. They are bought on the Interior Ministry’s budget that we pay for through our taxes. In other words, we are paying the state to torture us.

Of course we have a culture of violence in homes, schools and other places, but torture is a different practice carried out by the state targeting society, which also copies it in its daily practices. Today, societal violence is taking the shape of torture. We saw recently how a group of people tied a man to a tree and tortured him because he was a suspect.

The media also encourages violence. So we have seen reports on a mother handing in her son, or the woman on the metro who reported a girl to the police for reading books on atheism because she was reading Naguib Mahfouz’s [previously banned] novel Awlad Haretna [Children of the Alley, 1959]. So it is a policy that utilizes traits that exist in people everywhere in the world, and in some places these traits are not accepted, while in others they are given the green light, which is the case in Egypt.

MM: You started off doing some medical activities of a confidential nature, but with time a new direction emerged. Did you feel sometimes that advocacy trumped the patient’s need for privacy, needed for security reasons as well as psychological and social ones? How do you balance between these cases being personal experiences but also having this public dimension?

AS: The balance happens in agreement with the patient on all the details, including publicizing the case, as well as explaining the consequences of publicizing, which can both protect the survivor but also put them in a confrontation with the police. So we can’t guarantee that there won’t be a confrontation, but what we do guarantee is that that we are there to offer support whatever happens.

Some survivors ask from the beginning that we publicize their case while we may not see it as the right decision. If, for example, they have yet to see a forensics authority, publicizing can lead to restricting the survivor’s freedoms and preventing them from seeing the forensic doctor.

We agree with patients before taking any step. The therapist also has an opinion in these cases and determines whether we are ready to take any moves. When we do publicize, the therapist is with the survivor at all times, so they are there when a testimonial is collected or in a public conference setting.

MM: Do you feel from your observation of different torture practices that there is a strong use of social norms around gender, whereby men’s masculinity is targeted while women are attacked on the basis of their womanhood?

AS: Of course. We can talk here about verbal assault. Nothing of what is said during torture parties is not said in the street, although it is multiplied. So we find in torture the verbal and male-dominant insults that society uses against women and which carry sexual threats. At the same time, men are likened to women and to people who are LGBT [as they are being tortured].

In general, torture is a mechanism to break a person and humiliate them. The famous story of Emad al-Kebir is an example, as a policeman ordered a lower ranking one to sexually assault him while taking pictures of him, and then that policeman threatened to disseminate it among his family members. We encounter all kinds of mechanisms of fear and terror including rape and sexual assault.

MM: Do you feel you have encountered some successes through your work?

AS: Of course, there is tangible success. We have become a well-known and respected center and we are working on important cases. But the more evident success is to be found with patients whose condition is improving and who are returning to normal life, as well as the good quality of doctors despite the huge pressures on them.

MM: I want to ask you about your role and that of the Nadeem Center in confronting the state crackdown on human rights organizations last year, especially that you previously stood against the NGO law and state interference.

AS: We had this experience in 1999 where we tried to reject the law, knowing how it would end. Nobody believed us so that’s why we had to negotiate and inevitably a law we rejected was passed. When the law was passed, we applied to register the Egyptian Association to Combat Torture. Alongside other organizations, we were refused, and together went to court to appeal the decision. The registrations were accepted apart from that of the Egyptian Association to Combat Torture. Believe it or not, the last degree of arbitration in the association’s case, which started in 2001, took place in April and the court is due to make a decision October 12.

Of course, this crackdown concerns us and the state can shut us down anytime, despite the fact that our accounts are public and we pay our taxes every year. I am ready to be audited by an authority, so long as Naguib Sawiris and all the other businessmen are as well. Our reports are public and we address official entities through them. If they want to shut down the clinic, they are welcome to do it, but it can’t be with the excuse of us using [foreign] funding.

If they are against funding, let them stop it. I am one of the people who used to ask diplomats from the European Union in meetings we had at the Cairo Center for Human Rights Studies to stop funding programs since it is their taxpayers’ money and if the government issues a law that gives it control over this money, we cannot really ask them to stop their relations with the Egyptian government.

So let them stop the funding and we will manage. We won’t stop working on fighting torture, even if they shut down the clinic.

A version of this interview appeared in the Middle East Research and Information Project.

This is part of a series of interviews by Mada Masr with human rights workers in Egypt.


You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism