Bahey eldin Hassan, Condemned But Defiant

15 October, 2020

Egyptian human rights activist Bahey eldin Hassan, pictured here with former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon (Photo: Mark Garten)

Egypt­ian human rights activist Bahey eldin Has­san, pic­tured here with for­mer Sec­re­tary-Gen­er­al of the Unit­ed Nations, Ban Ki-Moon (Pho­to: Mark Garten)

Monique El-Faizy 

Hope is not the first word that comes to mind for most when the top­ic of Egypt comes up these days. Jour­nal­ists are being thrown in prison for telling the truth, teenage girls for post­ing videos of them­selves danc­ing on Tik­Tok and wit­ness­es to sex­u­al assault for com­ing for­ward. Add in mount­ing unem­ploy­ment and a shrink­ing econ­o­my and the pic­ture that emerges is far from rosy.

There are those who have less rea­son for opti­mism than oth­ers, Bahey eldin Has­san, direc­tor and co-founder of the Cairo Insti­tute for Human Rights Stud­ies (CIHRS), among them. This life­long rights activist has been in the crosshairs of var­i­ous regimes for most of his adult life, but in 2014 the water in the prover­bial lob­ster pot heat­ed up so pre­cip­i­tous­ly that he was forced to jump out. He has been liv­ing in self-exile in France ever since.

Born in Cairo in 1948—the same year the UN Dec­la­ra­tion of Human Rights was adopt­ed, he points out—Hassan began his activism young, join­ing stu­dent protests dur­ing the Nass­er regime in the 1960s. He did a brief stint in prison at the time, which did noth­ing to hin­der his momen­tum. Has­san became a jour­nal­ist but his engage­ment became a career in 1983 when he joined the Press Syn­di­cate’s free­doms com­mit­tee. Two years lat­er he got involved with the Egypt­ian Orga­ni­za­tion for Human Rights (EOHR). The fol­low­ing year he was elect­ed to the board of direc­tors and in 1988 he became the orga­ni­za­tion’s sec­re­tary gen­er­al. It was under Has­san’s direc­tion that this sec­u­lar orga­ni­za­tion start­ed doc­u­ment­ing rights abus­es against Islamists and issued the first detailed report on tor­ture and began lodg­ing com­plaints with the Unit­ed Nations.

In 1993 Has­san expand­ed his reach, co-found­ing CIHRS, which defends human rights not only in Egypt but in the Mid­dle East and North Africa as well. Today it is the region’s largest such orga­ni­za­tion, with rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Cairo, Tunis, Gene­va and Brussels.

Sisi's crackdown on Egypt's protesters has been severe.

Sisi’s crack­down on Egyp­t’s pro­test­ers has been severe.

Around the time that Gen­er­al Abdel Fat­tah el-Sisi was elect­ed pres­i­dent in May 2014, Has­san became aware of a threat against him. There was noth­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly new in that: Has­san had reg­u­lar­ly been threat­ened both by the gov­ern­ment and the Islamists through­out his 30-year career as a rights activist. But this time was dif­fer­ent. Has­san had crit­i­cized the mil­i­tary ouster of pres­i­dent Mohammed Mor­si and called it a coup. Many had already been thrown in jail for sim­i­lar state­ments. When Has­san told the ambas­sador to Cairo from a west­ern nation about the warn­ing and from whom it had come, the ambas­sador took Has­san into a secure room and told him to leave Egypt imme­di­ate­ly. The new gov­ern­ment was will­ing to kill, the ambas­sador told Hassan. 

Still, Has­san was­n’t entire­ly con­vinced. He left for a pre­vi­ous­ly planned work trip to Gene­va and New York, and told UN offi­cials in those cities about the threat. They urged him not to return to Egypt and to have his wife and daugh­ters join him abroad.

“I did­n’t believe that it was so seri­ous,” he told me. “That was my inter­nal feel­ing, but I was wrong. I have been sure for some time now that those diplo­mats were cor­rect and that I should have left Egypt on the same day or, when I received this advice in New York, I should not have gone back to Egypt.”

But go back he did. After con­sult­ing with friends and fam­i­ly there, though, he was per­suad­ed: He, his wife and his two young daugh­ters need­ed to leave. He set about mak­ing all the arrange­ments he could in a week or so, both for him­self and his fam­i­ly, and for his orga­ni­za­tion and its employ­ees, whom he knew would be in dan­ger once he left. He reg­is­tered CIHRS in Tunisia and made sure the orga­ni­za­tion’s lead­er­ship would be able to be based there, where they would be safer. That office is now the orga­ni­za­tion’s region­al headquarters.

Then Has­san had to say goodbye—probably forever—to fam­i­ly and friends, many of whom he was not able to tell what he was about to do.  He took his fam­i­ly to a beach resort to cre­ate the impres­sion of nor­mal­cy and to ease a bit of the ten­sion they were all under.

And then, they packed their suit­cas­es and flew to Europe, osten­si­bly just for a trip. They have been liv­ing in France ever since. They’re not in hid­ing, but they do take pre­cau­tions and the French author­i­ties know where they are and are aware of their situation.

But even as he was leav­ing Egypt, Has­san was­n’t com­plete­ly sure he and his fam­i­ly was in dan­ger. “Lat­er on I real­ized how seri­ous it real­ly was,” he said.

That’s what a pub­lic death threat will do for you. In 2018, an Egypt­ian tele­vi­sion host said that the gov­ern­ment should “deal with [Has­san] the same way the Russ­ian spy was dealt with,” refer­ring to the nerve agent attack on Sergei Skri­pal in the Unit­ed King­dom. He was react­ing to a memo that CIHRS and six oth­er inde­pen­dent Egypt­ian human rights group had sent to the UN Sec­re­tary Gen­er­al about the dis­mal state of human rights in Egypt, par­tic­u­lar­ly dur­ing the run-up to the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. The host remind­ed the name­less gov­ern­ment offi­cials he was urg­ing to take a hit out on Has­san that they had done it before.

Has­san had rea­son to believe Egyp­t’s arms were long enough to reach Europe. A year ear­li­er, two men pos­ing as Egypt­ian jour­nal­ists hung around a human rights work­shop in Rome and took pho­tos of and oth­er­wise intim­i­dat­ed participants.

Despite all that, Has­san main­tains an atti­tude near­ly as bright as the sun­shine-yel­low polo sweater he wore for our Zoom inter­view. He laughs eas­i­ly, even when talk­ing about his dark­est days. When I told him I found the sto­ry about the TV host call­ing for his assas­si­na­tion ter­ri­fy­ing, he sim­ply said “yes” and start­ed chuckling. 

Fear just isn’t some­thing Has­san lets him­self indulge in. He can’t, he told me. It would par­a­lyze him. “What can I do?” he asked rhetor­i­cal­ly. “This is a gov­ern­ment and it has no lim­its in attack­ing, killing, what­ev­er, indi­vid­u­als or mass killings.” If he let him­self feel the fear, he said, “I would do nothing.”

Instead, he does a lot. Liv­ing in France has­n’t slowed Has­san’s advo­ca­cy efforts one bit. He has con­tin­ued to lead cam­paigns in protest of the anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic con­duct of the Egypt­ian gov­ern­ment and to hold reg­u­lar meet­ings with senior glob­al lead­ers, includ­ing UN sec­re­tary gen­er­als Anto­nio Guter­res and Ban Ki-moon and pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma, whom Has­san pressed to be tougher on Mubarak. When Oba­ma jok­ing­ly asked why Has­san was being so tough on him, Has­san replied that if Mubarak would take a meet­ing with him he would hap­pi­ly lev­el equal criticism.

The Egypt­ian gov­ern­ment, though, does­n’t seem to have the same equa­nim­i­ty as Oba­ma did. In August, Has­san was sen­tenced in absen­tia to 15 years in prison for tweet­ing against tor­ture and the lack of judi­cial inde­pen­dence in Egypt, and call­ing for jus­tice for Ital­ian stu­dent Giulio Regeni, whose muti­lat­ed body was found on the side of a road in Jan­u­ary 2016 after he had been abduct­ed. His body showed clear signs of tor­ture, and Egypt­ian secu­ri­ty offi­cials are strong­ly sus­pect­ed to have been involved in his death, though the Egypt­ian gov­ern­ment has always denied that.

Hasan’s sen­tence was the longest ever giv­en to a human right’s defend­er in Egypt and came in addi­tion to the three years to which he was sen­tenced in 2019, also in absen­tia and also for tweet­ing, that time crit­i­cism of Egyp­t’s pub­lic prosecutor.

As long as Sisi is in pow­er, Has­san can­not return to Egypt. And he miss­es it. He miss­es the streets of down­town Cairo near his office. He miss­es tamaya and ful medames and the rit­u­als and the com­pa­ny that were a part of those meals. He watch­es old Egypt­ian films that show the lives of ordi­nary Egyp­tians on his lap­top near­ly every day and he gets nos­tal­gic when he sees good pic­tures of down­town Cairo. 

And yet, Has­san says he is hope­ful about the future of rights in Egypt. “Of course,” he tells me. “I could­n’t sur­vive with­out hope.” He looks to the past: He joined the human rights move­ment when there was such thing in Egypt, and now, fet­tered though it may be, there is. The cur­rent sit­u­a­tion, he believes, is unsus­tain­able, giv­en the trou­ble eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion in the region.  “At the end of the day, Sisi and his mil­i­tary have to feed his [pop­u­la­tion of] 100 mil­lion and he has almost exhaust­ed his resources,” Has­san said. Sur­vival will require a rad­i­cal shift, Has­san believes, pri­mar­i­ly eco­nom­ic, but that will have a knock-on effect.

It is that con­vic­tion that keeps Has­san going. “Of course I am hope­ful for the future,” he says. “Oth­er­wise I would not con­tin­ue in my work.”

Monique El-Faizy, a TMR con­tribut­ing edi­tor, is a jour­nal­ist and author based in Paris.