Akwe Amosu: Hello and welcome to Strength&Solidarity. I’m Akwe Amosu here with episode 30 of our podcast about the tools, tactics, and strategies being used to advance human rights around the world. And today,
- An Egyptian human rights leader reflects on the bitter legacy of Tahrir Square.
- And in the Coda, a Nigerian activist tells us how Audre Lorde has transformed his approach.
AA: As I was preparing to record this episode, it struck me how little time we’ve spent talking about defeat in this podcast. We don’t set out to avoid talking about it, nor is there any policy to focus on positive stories. But somehow we just haven’t talked much about failure. And of course, it’s not just somehow, it may not be conscious, but there is a natural tendency to look away. Human rights work is done in the face of large obstacles and hostile forces, and dwelling on defeat and failure never feels good, even though you often hear it said, with sincerity, that it’s important to learn from our setbacks. Well, the upcoming interview with Mohamed Lotfy, Executive Director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, redresses the balance. I’d been wondering what it’s like for activists and human rights defenders in Egypt looking back at the remarkable Tahrir Square uprising in 2011, also known as the January 25th Revolution, knowing that they achieved so much new space only to see its snatched away again. How has their work and commitment been affected by defeat?
AA: Welcome, Mohamed.
Mohamed Lotfy: Hi, Akwe, I’m glad to be with you today.
AA: So I want to ask you about activism in Egypt. Everybody saw the Arab Spring with just astonishment and excitement and hope. And then, you know, gradually over the subsequent months and years realized that we were going back to the repression and post-Morsi. The military rule has been as harsh as ever. What’s it been like for activists who went through that process to be back in this place?
ML: It was a traumatizing experience for most Egyptian activists, pro-democracy activists, human rights defenders in general, and NGOs to find out that, uh, this moment of 25 January uprising in the Tahrir Square was aborted. And to acknowledge defeat was very bitter for most people. And it’s very difficult to, you know, overcome that feeling that some hundreds of people have died in the squares of Egypt for change, for social justice, for freedoms, and in the end, the result is worse than before the uprising. And so it’s, it, it is a trauma, I think, that everybody who has gone through the Tahrir Square is living now. It’s a trauma that trying to improve things can lead to a worse situation. And so everybody’s traumatized about this experience and some are able to cope with it, but I feel most people have not been able to cope with that.
AA: So can you talk a bit about what impact that trauma has had? I mean, I can see that just at a very individual private level, people have to process grief and yeah, deep disappointment. But even beyond that, is there a group experience that you can point to?
ML: Most recently, I met a man who was on the protest in Tahrir Square, who lost one eye and the second eye, he could still see with it a little bit. And his second eye is fainting away. His eyesight in the second eye is going away as time passes. And so he met me and his request was perhaps to find some doctor abroad who could actually treat his second eye so that he can continue to see. Cause he feels that he made a sacrifice for his country, for his future, for his children and that this sacrifice led to nowhere and time is ticking for him before he becomes blind. And I had no answer to give him, except to tell him, OK, give me the medical reports and let’s try to find if this is curable at all or not. And his plight is a plight of many hundreds or many thousands of Egyptians who have lost a limb, who have lost a brother or sister, or who have lost their eyesights. And this group of people of the injured of the uprising, it was a very influential group, back in 2011. Today they have disbanded as a group. They’re left on their own, fighting for having a job and, and providing for their families. They have grown 10 years older. They have made a sacrifice for the future to be better and, and now they feel left alone. And so it’s a failure from everybody, indeed, to support those guys who were on the front lines in Tahrir, making history happen. And his sense of trauma, his trauma is very deep. It’s something that he lives physically all the time. Now, other groups, political groups have a lot of their members in prison. Some of them are very sick, not getting their insulin, not for that, those that have diabetes, not getting medical care, and, and many dying in prison out of medical neglect. And, and so their group that’s outside feel powerless in helping their own members. And so that trauma is running deep within the political groups in Egypt and the human rights organizations as well. Many human rights organizations have basically abandoned the fight altogether or decided to close because they realize that they can’t do anything and they can’t help, and that they are themselves at threat and their members are at threat of arrest. And so the fight is, is personal and is political at the level of every group too.
AA: Is there any space publicly where this gets acknowledged or expressed? Is there any reflection in the public sphere about what you are describing?
ML: Online, a lot of people who have lived through the uprising or who have participated or contributed to it, they remember these moments. They remember the good days when there was hope. And at every anniversary of the uprising in January, end of January, people post photos of themselves when they were in the squares, post photos of the slogans that were chanted at the time. And it’s very interesting to see how the discourse has evolved around the uprising. There was a lot of grief and mourning in the first, I would say, four to five years at every anniversary. And then from the sixth and seventh year after the uprising – 2018, 2019 – you feel people have come to terms with a defeat, acknowledging a defeat. And what we have seen most recently in the past couple of years in January 2021, 2022, is people, you know, telling themselves: we shouldn’t feel guilty all the time at every January. We have tried, we have failed, but maybe we have inspired others new generation to, to come forward. And I think it – that this trauma is still healing until now. And one day, non-traumatized Egyptians, who were maybe 10 years old, 15 years old back then, are now 20 and 25 years old, 26 years old, uh, they can take the lead and go back to this mythical moment of the Tahrir Square and think this is, this is a foundation for something else that we can build and improve in the future. And so my hope is always in this non-traumatized younger generation who are able to, you know, push things forward and change things for the better.
AA: And in the meantime, what do people who did not take part in the uprising, who perhaps already thought it was futile, thought it was too risky, thought that the status quo was okay, what, what are they saying about that sacrifice that was made?
ML: Some people whom I respect enormously have been consistent about their position. So from day one of the uprising, they were against it. They kept being against it until the end. Some people, when they saw the uprising sort of making progress in the first couple of months, or first year or so, they turned to become pro-change. And then when they saw the wind changing, they became against it again. And those people are very hypocrite. These people are nemesises for us. Some people haven’t been thinking much about it all the time. And I think that’s the majority of the undecided. They see things unfolding and they don’t know what to think about it. I think a big majority of these undecided people after 10 years are thinking now – hey, we failed in joining those guys in Tahrir square. We should have been there 10 years ago, but now it’s too late. So, you know, symbolically they acknowledge that some change needed to happen at that juncture of Egyptian history, and they regret not having joined back then. It doesn’t mean that they propose a new change now. They, they remain on, on, on the backseat, you know, watching again. But this is a constituency that if one day there is a chance for changing Egypt, I think those guys who regretted not having acted back in 2011 might actually join.
AA: I wonder what the impact is of having to live with this defeat for people who are still passionate about rights and justice and democracy. It must have a kind of chilling effect to have this sensation that even such an enormous effort that was echoed and responded to all around the world wasn’t enough to make the change. Does it affect the will of people to get involved or get active in the present day?
ML: It does. Now it comes at very high risks for anybody who wants to join a human rights organization or a political party or anything. They are at much higher risks of being arrested, of being made to disappear or being tortured or put on trial and receive very lengthy punishments of prison. And so the risks of fighting for human rights or democracy in Egypt is much higher now than it was 15, 20 years ago. And so most people who have skills and who could join the fight would rather go and study abroad. So they leave the country. There is a real brain drain going on at the moment. So they would rather find a scholarship in Europe or in the US and continue their studies, do a master’s degree, a PhD, or even join international organizations that are working abroad, so… I personally came back to Egypt to settle and live in Egypt in early 2013, because although I used to live abroad and I was settled abroad – I had my life abroad in the UK as an Amnesty researcher, I decided to go back because I thought that this is a moment of the fight where it needs to be done on the ground with people with a big immense hopes. And, and so I stayed, I stayed in Egypt to establish the organization Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, and continue the fight with this dream that, you know, things will get better at some point in the future, but it comes at a huge cost. And I appreciate every activist who stays in the country, every lawyer who is still fighting in court, every researcher trying to gather testimonies. It’s a much riskier job now to do than before. But the trend indeed is for people to leave the country and voice their concerns and voice their criticism safely from abroad. That’s the trend at the moment.
AA: There’s a huge uprising that has been going on next door in Sudan – in some ways must feel very resonant for people who were involved in similar protests in Egypt. And even though that protest also was defeated with the return of military rule, one sees it’s still kicking off, people are still mobilized. There’s still passion. Does that in, in any way resonate currently in Egypt? Is it encouraging to people to see that the same effort is being made somewhere else?
ML: It is very inspiring. It is vibrating with Egyptians to see Sudanese because we have a common history. We have a common river, we have a lot in common with Sudanese people as well. So a win for democracy, human rights in Sudan is definitely a big win for Egyptians too. And the loss for military rule in Sudan is a big win for a new model that can arise in Sudan of civilian rule that can bolster the will of Egyptians, that if Sudanese can do it, maybe we can do it too. And sometimes we forget that the inspiration for uprising in Egypt only happened after Tunisians were able to actually evict their dictator at the time, same year, same time, same month. So there is a lot of this going on between different peoples of the region, inspiring each others indeed. And so I hope, really hope that the Sudanese find a way that can inspire Egyptians to resume their fight and continue their fight.
AA: And is there any sense of solidarity beyond your region? I mean, I think the passion that was excited by the uprising, yeah, I mean, books were published, people came out in solidarity in all sorts of places as demonstrations, funds were raised, international organizations made protests. Is that all just noise or is there some meaningful impact still, 10 years on, on the ground in Egypt?
ML: It’s difficult to say, but any act of solidarity done in Europe, in the US, in Africa, elsewhere in the world does resonate with Egyptians who believe that this is a global fight for democracy, a global fight for human rights. A lot of people in Egypt were very happy to see change happening in the US, most recently with the election of a Democratic party, Biden in the US because it felt like, you know, uh, when it goes bad somewhere, it gets worse in our country. And so if things get slightly better on the democratic progress front somewhere, this is good for us as well in Egypt. So I think the sense or the feeling that there is no individual salvation alone, one country could find its way on its own, this is not true. And the more there are dictators around, the more difficult it is for a country to be democratic and the more democracies arise and appear in neighboring countries or anywhere, actually, that’s an inspiring prospect for, for people in Egypt. So I think that sense of solidarity has gone beyond our Arab region or Middle East region, and, and people are more sensitive now to developments elsewhere.
AA: And meanwhile on the ground in Egypt, do you feel that essentially what you and others can do is a defensive posture, that you, you try and hold the line, try and defend those who are targeted, but that the possibility of something more proactive, a revival, if you like, of a meaningful protest movement -that’s just not on the agenda for now?
ML: Exactly. So what we can do is, as human rights organizations, is try to keep that margin of specific space alive, push back on censorship by the government, whether it’s online censorship or, or elsewhere, push for media freedoms, for right to association. This is just the margin that would allow in the future, hopefully, people to organize themselves around new forms of organization and whether political or human rights, so that they can help us in the future. So we are just holding we are those three hundred Spartans <laugh> holding the line before more people join in and so we, we are able to, to change things.
AA: You said you came back in 2013, it sounds like nine long years. Do you regret that decision?
ML: No, I don’t regret that decision. Uh, it is an unusual decision. It was a moment where a lot of people already sensed that things were going in the wrong direction and so started to leave the country. And I did exactly the opposite. I actually returned to Egypt. I felt that this was the right thing to do at the time, and probably if I had the opportunity to do it again, I would have done exactly the same. Uh, now my fear in my life is to have to choose between family and convictions – what I believe in. I am in a situation today after nine years where my wife and son are living in one country and I am living in Egypt. And so I have to go back and forth between my family in Europe and, and my work in Egypt all the time. So I hope I don’t get to this point where I am forced to make a choice between family and work. So far I have managed to sort of juggle with the two, but it’s draining, it’s very difficult psychologically and, and financially and everything but I’m intent on keeping it that way so that I can be there for my family and be there for my colleagues as well.
AA: And your family’s living outside the country because it’s difficult for them, you want to keep them safe? Or what’s that about?
ML: So back in 2018, my wife made a live video on Facebook where she criticized the government for failing women being sexually harassed. She was sexually harassed that day twice, including by policemen and the taxi driver. And so she vented all her anger about those harassers and people who help harassers get away. She caught the taxi driver, she wanted people to help her to take this taxi driver to the police station. But what people did was like, “OK, calm down. It’s OK. He’s an old man, let him go.” And the guy gone. So she was not only angry at, uh, the government, she was also angry at people who help harassers get away. And so she made this video, the video went viral. Millions of people have seen this video where she was swearing all the time, a woman swearing, it was very viral, and that apparently angered some people in the top in Egypt. And so, the next day national security came with police forces and arrested her. She was put in jail for eight months at the time, on the back of two cases, including a national security case. Anyway, she was released beginning of 2019 awaiting trial, and she received a two years prison. She stayed at home fearing to go out – she might be arrested to serve her sentence – until we made an appeal to the cassation court. The cassation court ruled in January, 2022 finally that instead of being in prison for two years, she would be in prison for one year only. But as a matter of precaution, we decided that she should fly, leave the country before the verdict is pronounced and indeed, she had already flown before the verdict. So now she’s in self-exile in a way, with our son. And she can’t return to Egypt or she would be rearrested to serve the one-year prison sentence.
AA:This has taken an enormous toll on you and your family?
LM: No, it was very stressful. Like you can imagine, I was visiting her in prison for eight months. So every week I would take the food, the clothes she needs, everything, take the boy with me, with my father-in-law by car, go to the prison, wait in the sun for three, four hours before we get the one-hour visit with her. The boy would sleep in her arms during the time, so I would carry him back to the car when the visit finished. And it was emotionally, uh, you know, I will never forget the first time we went to visit her with our boy who was three years old at the time. I could not hold my tears the first time, the first visit when she joined the boy finally after one week having not seen him. And so it was a nerve-racking experience and also psychologically very draining for her, even more than myself, to the point where she told me not to bring the boy any anymore, because having the boy in her arms and then leaving him for a whole week, that was so painful to her that she would rather not have the boy in the first place. Uh, I didn’t listen to her, I have to confess, and I still brought the boy and she was happy that I brought him. She was telling me, you did the right thing not to hear what I said to you. And so for the next couple of years until the very last verdict, I was very, I was stressed all the time because I was scared that they might be separated again. I mean, I am an adult, I can live with that, but a mother and a boy being separated from each other, that’s tough. And, and so I’m happy now that they’re living happily away in Europe together. I feel I can continue to do my job as an NGO director without feeling that I have an arm, an arm bent, in a way.
AA: But you have lost something that you should be able to have, which is a family life at home, right where you live.
ML: Absolutely. Absolutely. And, and you know, it’s a sacrifice that I’m making for their best interest. So my family’s best interest, and it’s not a huge sacrifice compared to people who are now for four or five years in jail or who have lost their lives altogether or their eyesight like our friend I mentioned in the beginning. So everybody who wants to fight for democracy or human rights in Egypt has made a sacrifice a way or another, for some time. And that’s the way it is. Nothing comes for free.
AA: This may not be a question that can be answered, but I’m wondering where the will to stay in the fight comes from. Why is it strong in you? Why do you want to stick at it rather than throw in the towel and, and go and join them?
ML: Every one of us has a capability to keep going, I think. So I don’t like to be judgmental towards people who decide to stop or leave or seek something better. Some people receive death threats, uh, they have to leave. It would be crazy to stay around. Uh, but ultimately I think any one of us who fights for a cause like this, like democracy, like human rights, it’s built in their character, in their upbringing, in their way of thinking, in their psyche almost. It’s <laugh> it’s in their genes, I would love to say. They are fighters. They live that way. They feel self-fulfillment. There is a bit of egoism in it as well. I feel self-fulfilled when I fight back injustice. It’s not just for the victim. I myself feel good also that I have not stood there silent when an injustice was being done to somebody else. So it’s solidarity, it’s giving to somebody, but it’s also feeling good about yourself, not feeling good in a very polished way. No, no, it’s feeling good because I would lack respect to myself or to the organization which I direct if we stay silent when a, a gross injustice is happening. So people find the energy together in an NGO better than alone. When you’re alone, you drain your own energy. When you’re in an NGO, you have colleagues who can take the lead a little bit, then they are tired, and then other colleagues are continuing the fight. And then you have maybe resourced yourself again, you got some wellbeing retreat or so, and then you can come and, and continue. And therefore, I think, I always think that collective fights or a fight within an organization is much more sustainable than draining yourself alone.
AA: You are reminding me of the veteran Turkish activist, Murat Celikkan, who said he needed to be able to get up in the morning and look at himself in the mirror, look himself in the eye, and feel that he had been true to himself. And that’s why he had to stay in the fight.
ML: I agree with you. And, and, and that, that’s why each time I think of myself, if I leave the fight and go and settle with my family, I would be joined, we’d be together. OK? I will have fulfilled a promise to my son to be with him, around and all that, but at the same time, I ask myself, will I cope with that, that I have dropped and have left something that I could have continued? Um, yeah, what you, what you just said is, is very true.
AA: Well, much respect. Thank you so much, Mohamed.
ML: Thank you, Akwe.
AA: Mohamed Lotfy leads the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms in Cairo. You can read a transcript of our conversation at strength and solidarity dot org.
AA: Our Coda this time comes from Nigerian social justice campaigner, Ken Henshaw, who leads the environmental activist organization, We, The People in the Niger Delta. The Coda is where we find out how activists and rights defenders are getting their inspiration and resilience. What gives them the ability to bounce back? And Ken wanted to tell us about his experience of first reading Audre Lorde’s seminal 1979 speech, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.
Ken Henshaw: I first encountered Audre Lorde about two years ago. It’s a short piece, about three pages and I read it and the impact was instantaneous, and it was very powerful. When she spoke about using the master tools to dismantle the master’s house that for me was a turning point. It struck me very strongly, struck me very powerfully.
KH: Twenty-five years of social activism basically flashed in front of my eyes. I started asking myself – in my social activism, have I not been using the master’s tools in an attempt to dismantle the master’s house? I started asking, I mean, is it really possible, even sensible to hope that the master will provide you with the kind of tools that are necessary to dismantle his or her own house? I basically started questioning all our strategies, all the strategies we had used in, in social activism.
KH: I used to be a budget monitor, right? But what we were simply doing was chasing money that we knew had already been stolen, right? And write fancy reports about them. And you were made to feel at that time that this was all that was needed to ensure accountability. And that is the basic reason, I guess, that most activists get frustrated. Most of them, you know, develop mental disorders, right? Because you feel that you have ticked all the boxes, you have done everything that the books say should be done in order to achieve results. And the results do not come. Maybe those frameworks were never really meant to work. Maybe these frameworks were the master’s frameworks meant to reinforce the master’s house.
KH: Our work never served to really shake the master to the foundations. In fact, the actions that were carried out outside the formal spaces, whether they were sit-ins or mass protests, occupy streets, occupy police stations – those actions that were outside the prescribed frameworks turned out to be more effective. In simple terms, whenever we went onto the street, whenever we engaged any process and we did not use the master’s tools, we had far more success than when we used the master’s tools.
KH: My feeling was a mixture. So I was angry, angry that we had been doing it wrong all along, angry that I had just encountered with this powerful writer, but excited, you know, with this new way of thinking, excited about that. The companies, oil companies which I fight against already know that you’re going to engage. And they have got a well-paid team who try to understand how you will engage and prepare a response for how you engage. But we have now realized, on account of what we’ve learned from Audre Lorde, that the strategy can be unpredictable. And that the instant you stop thinking as if there is a box, you think as if there are no boxes, when you start thinking strategically, right, you will see a whole variety of tools for your advocacy and for your social activism, which you did not even believe were workable tools!
KH: Audre Lorde has given my activism wings to fly. She’s given me a new paradigm, a new perspective to understanding social reality and to confronting social reality. And has made me a lot more critical about what I accept, what I get engaged in, and how I engage. And the reality is that whether you work in environmental space or you work around issues of LGBT rights or you are working around human rights, whatever it is, whatever your struggle is, Audre Lorde gives you the tools to interpret that particular reality. Makes you ask questions like, whose system are you facilitating? Whose house are you working within? Whose ideas are you promoting? Are these the master’s ideas or are these the people’s ideas? Are these systems of patriarchy – and by patriarchy, I mean all oppressive systems, right? – are these systems of patriarchy that we’re trying to reinforce, or are these our own ideas that are channeled toward change, groundbreaking and transformative. It makes you ask that question. And my biggest regret, my biggest regret, I ask myself, how come I only became aware of her two years ago? And in that short period, the work I do has totally changed. My strategy has totally changed, and I’m achieving some, some groundbreaking and fundamental results already. And that’s thanks to Audre Lorde. I mean she, she’s great. She’s great, she’s great. She’s great.
AA: Our thanks to Ken Henshaw of We The People. We’ll post a link to Audre Lorde’s powerful metaphor and reflections on the website, strengthandsolidarity.org.
AA: That’s episode 30 of Strength&Solidarity. We would very much like to hear your thoughts on anything you’ve heard here. Please share by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org. And don’t forget, if you know someone who would find this episode interesting or useful, please forward it to them. For now, from producer Peter Coccoma and me, Akwe Amosu, see you next time.