Book Review: Two years after the death of the Egyptian 'lawyer of the poor'

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Thursday 12 Jan 2017

The writers, who consider themselves pupils of late rights lawyer Ahmed Seif El-Islam, compile cases documenting the prominent lawyer's defence of human rights in Egypt and the price his family had to pay

Ma’a Seif (With Seif), edited by Aziza Al-Taweel and Taher Abul-Nasr, 2015. pp. 199  

Ma’a Seif– edited by Aziza Al-Taweel and Taher Abul-Nasr, who consider themselves pupils of lawyer Ahmed Seif El-Islam (January 1951 - August 2014) – is mostly free of the usual material often present in biographies, where the virtues and achievements of the deceased are listed.

Al-Taweel and Abul-Nasr felt that this traditional approach would contradict with Seif El-Islam’s life goals and selfless commitment to the defence of public freedoms.

In the book’s short introduction, his wife Leila apologised for the delay in publishing, which she said was due to the “violations” the family was subjected to by security bodies.

She added that the book “offers the reader seven [legal cases on which Seif El-Islam worked that] that reflect [his] vision that anything that violates human dignity becomes a violation of human rights.”

The first case involved the Church of the Virgin Mary demonstrations in Shubra in January 2011. The defence counsel was keen to uncover the “fallacies and lies” presented by the prosecution and conflicting witness statements, as well as defend the right to hold political demonstrations.

Through several trial sessions, Seif El-Islam was able to secure the release of his young clients in the Court of Appeals after they were sentenced to two years in a lower court.

The importance of the case is in the defence counsel’s statements, which set a legal precedent.

The defence counsel statements were written efficiently and professionally by Seif El-Islam, such as when he defended 75 people arrested during the demonstrations that took place in front of the Saudi and Israeli embassies in May 2011.

In the first defence statement, he argued that the detention was unconstitutional and in the second he presented a brief summary of the Constitutional Court verdicts concerning the state of emergency.

The court issued a suspended sentence, which the defence considered a partial victory.

Ma’a Seif also features Seif El-Islam’s defence counsel statements where he argued against “the administrative body’s rejection of the establishment of the New Woman Foundation” in June 2003 as an example of the defence of the constitutional rights of independent organisations.

The Mahalla El-Kubra workers strike case of 2008 is also featured as an example of a right to strike case.

The Taba bombings case of 2005 and the Zeitoun Cell case of 2010 are featured as examples of cases where Seif El-Islam defended Islamists.

The book is a fitting dedication to Seif El-Islam and the role he played in the defence of human rights, a legacy his family continues honour.

Immediately before his death, Seif El-Islam left a message to his family where he apologised for the pain and the endless problems to which he subjected them.

His son Alaa is currently in prison for a period that may reach 15 years over charges ranging from illegal demonstrating to inciting violence.

His daughter Sanaa is also jailed for demonstrating in front of the Al-Ittihadiya Presidential Palace.

His second daughter, Mona, is a political activist who participated in the foundation of the “No to the Military Trials for Civilians” campaign.

Finally, his wife Dr Laila Soueif, daughter of renowned psychology scholar Mustafa Soueif, is one of the leading figures in the 9 March Movement calling for the independence of universities.

The entire family has thus paid the price of defending public freedoms and standing by prisoners of conscience.

This defence was not post-revolution, but preceded the 25 January revolution. The aforementioned message included an apology because all the family members suffered long years of repeated detention, repression and persecution at the hands of the security agencies before and after the revolution, in which they participated from the very first day.

Ahmed Seif El-Islam himself was subjected to repeated detentions since the 1970s, when he was a student at the Faculty of Economics and Political Sciences. He was sentenced to five years in prison after being accused of belonging to a leftist organisation.

Seif El-Islam received a BA in law while in prison, and defended members of all political currents in court.

He did not differentiate between the leftists to whom he belonged and the Islamists with whom he had ideological differences.

He also participated in the founding of renowned human rights organisation the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, which he bore the complicated and difficult burden of managing, as security agencies repeatedly stormed the centre over its defence of prisoners of conscience.

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