Heba Morayef: A guardian of rights in post-revolutionary Egypt

Bel Trew , Saturday 27 Apr 2013

Nominated for Time's prestigious top 100 list, Human Rights Watch country director talks about the ongoing fight for freedoms in Egypt (VIDEO)

From antagonising ruling generals to eating doughnuts with Mubarak ministers, meet Human Rights Watch Egypt Director Heba Morayef, once described by a US radio station as Egypt's guardian of human decency.

A familiar face of civil society, Morayef, who prefers to hide behind her work, was propelled into the spotlight when she was nominated for Time's Top 100, alongside internationally renowned comedian Bassem Youssef and President Mohamed Morsi himself.

Although slightly embarrassed that her name appeared on the potential list of "most influential people in the world" Morayef does admit that her presence there is a good sign.

"I think it's interesting that one of the people on that list is from the human rights community – that's something that President Mohamed Morsi, if he ever hears about it, perhaps should think on," Morayef says from the control room of HRW in Cairo's walled-in district of Garden City.

Growing up in Alexandria, from an Egyptian-Australian background, Morayef realised early on that unless you were involved in the Muslim Brotherhood "there wasn't much going on politically there."

She moved to Cairo to study politics and went on to specialise in international law before segueing into human rights.

The Mubarak era

In the dark pre-revolution days of 2010, Morayef joined Human Rights Watch, the only organisation to have the dubious privilege of being allowed access to Egypt's notorious jails.

Her first gig was the infamous 2010 parliamentary elections - one of the final straws that pushed the nation to revolt – during which she was largely helping the now-ruling Muslim Brotherhood.

Back then a banned group under attack, Morayef worked on securing the release of members of the Islamist group arrested while campaigning. The Brotherhood, she adds, were very active in pushing for human rights, a fact now she says is "fairly ironic."

At that time rights groups had very little access to the presidency; however, Morayef is one of the few who met with the ruling elite.

"We had a very surreal meeting with the assistant minister of interior, state security investigations…. where they just gave us the party line while serving us doughnuts, which then were not easy to come by in Cairo."

The ministry was typically unresponsive but Morayef says 2010 was a special year as discussions about human rights were at the centre, particularly after the brutal death of 28 year-old Alexandrian Khaled Said, which prompted sustained nationwide protests ultimately leading to revolution.

During those tumultuous 18 days, Morayef admits she went to Tahrir Square "as an Egyptian… but I'm no frontliner."

After Mubarak's ouster, what followed for the human rights community, Morayef says, was a brief honeymoon period then the start of an ongoing rollercoaster.

Fighting for rights under military rule

"In the immediate aftermath… there was a new openness towards human rights organisations," she says, describing her excitement at entering Cairo's infamous state television building for the first time.

She was interviewed by state-run channel Nile TV, a place that during the Mubarak-era would have never embraced those pushing a rights agenda.

Then, in an unprecedented move in 2011, Human Rights Watch was allowed to meet with the then-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

The closed council of generals, who had never previously interacted with civil society groups, did not take kindly to Morayef's agenda.

"We talked about military trials, torture and trials against journalists and virginity tests," she explains. Their initial response to the sexual assault of detained female protesters by members of the armed forces was to admit to HRW that it was a "normal procedure" that "happens in all military prisons in Egypt."

"They weren't used to dealing with us, General Mohamed El-Assar [now assistant defence minister] lost his temper twice and started shouting during the meeting."

After this and following a backlash from the rights community, the army denied the accusations of assault and the doctors accused of performing virginity tests were acquitted.

The tide had clearly changed.

In November that same year, security forces raided the offices of 17 NGOs and a trial began. Forty-three mainly Egyptian employees were in the dock on felony charges and still face potential seven-year jail sentences.

This saw an ongoing clampdown on foreign funding that has seen organisations close or be forced to let staff go, Morayef adds, crippling civil society in Egypt.

The Brotherhood moving forward

Morayef was cautiously optimistic in June 2012, when the news broke that Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi had won the presidential election.

"I was hopeful because when it comes to torture and military trials, those were the issues that the Brotherhood suffered from the most; that was the context that I came to know them."

Morsi appeared to move in the right direction when he set up a fact-finding committee in July of the same year.

However, almost one year on, the committee's 700-page report has yet to be made public. Instead, the committee was forced to leak sections of the report, which documents the authorities ordering the use of live ammunition in Suez among other abuses, to the media, sparking international uproar.

The real departure point for Morayef, however, was Morsi's November Constitutional Declaration, which rendered all presidential decrees as well as the Constituent Assembly from judicial appeal.

"We started hearing Morsi use the language of [Mubarak-era minister of interior] Habib El-Adly. He was taking the side of the police, no question of accountability – there were many speeches saying that the police played an honourable role during the revolution."

A few weeks later, the draft constitution, which had been the subject of bitter debate, was pushed through.

Morayef was one of the few commentators frantically monitoring the lengthy voting process during the constitution-drafting body's final session.

"That day was an insult to Egypt… I had been tracking all the different drafts since November, I was informally engaged with some of the committee and we had been doing legal analysis," she explains.

However in the final hour, new language was introduced. One of the worst examples of this for Morayef was Article 31, which prohibits insulting the individual: "it is that broad, and everyone clapped."

Bogged down in syntactic details, "they were discussing the position of commas."

Legislative landscape

The most immediate threat to the human rights community now, Morayef says, is new legislation.

Two controversial draft laws governing NGOs and demonstrations are currently being discussed by the Shura Council.

Morayef's cutting analysis of the demonstration legislation, a report ironically commissioned by former justice minister Ahmed Mekki himself, led the Shura Council to accuse Human Rights Watch last month of "meddling in domestic affairs," an allegation, Morayef said, that Mubarak would frequently use to protect the police state.

"It is surreal," Morayef adds, "to be arguing in 2013 for the rights of civil society and freedom of association to exist."

The current manifestation of the NGO law is, in Morayef's words, deeply restrictive and endangers the ability of both international and Egyptian groups to operate in Egypt.

"The law requires international organisations to apply to a committee upon which the Egyptian General Intelligence sit," Morayef explains. "Once registered you have to apply for permission for every activity, including renting an office or travelling out of Cairo."

The NGO law itself has raised larger questions about the problems between the remnants of the deep state and the Brotherhood in government.

The initial draft discussed in parliament just before it was dissolved in 2012 was authored by the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and Morayef says was less restrictive. After all, she adds, the Islamist group themselves will have to register under it: the ultimate guarantee of progressive legislation.

However, the language of 2013 version, which was largely drafted by the Cabinet, Morayef says comes from the Ministry of Social Affairs.

"We've compared the two and [the current restrictive draft] is copied and pasted from a Ministry of Social Affairs law which is very much representative of the security establishment." 

Taking its toll – hope on the horizon?

Two years on after the 18 day-uprising which toppled Mubarak, Morayef predicts a deterioration in human rights moving forward.

NGOs continue to document widespread abuses, including extra-judicial killings, political prisoners, torture, excessive use of force by the security forces and a rising trend of sectarian violence.

Yet no steps have been taken towards resolving these issues.

For Morayef, managing the expectations of those she is trying to help has been the toughest side of the job. Fighting for justice for the families of those killed by security forces, she cites as an example, is a long-term battle that rights groups are struggling to win.

However, the human rights community, she believes, has helped Egypt gain serious ground.

The combined effort of rights groups and revolutionary campaigns like No Military Trials for Civilians in documenting and publicising military abuses, she believes, contributed to a shift from military to civilian rule.

There are tentative signs of change on the horizon.

"I don't think there are any guarantees against a return to authoritarianism," Morayef concludes, "but ultimately people are no longer afraid. I think that is out best guarantee of continued mobilisation for social justice."

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