On the death of the Egyptian activist Ahmed Seif al-Islam

An indomitable fighter and visionary

Ahmed Seif al-Islam was one of Egypt's most important human rights activists. He died in late August at the age of 63 following a heart operation. An obituary by Andrea Backhaus in Cairo

The young man on the stage runs his hand over his cropped hair and clears his throat. Then he speaks into the microphone. "My father wasn't superhuman. He was like us," says Alaa Abdel-Fattah. "He talked about his troubles, his weaknesses and his mistakes in order to convey a higher message: that we must persist in defending what is right."

There is a surge of applause in the auditorium of the American University in Cairo. Around 700 people have gathered for the memorial service for Ahmed Seif al-Islam. Colleagues, relatives and friends want to remember the famous human rights lawyer's work and the guiding principles he passed on to others. "Like him, we must insist on justice," says Abdel-Fattah.

Ahmed Seif al-Islam was one of Egypt's most important human rights activists. He died in late August at the age of 63 following complications after heart surgery. According to Human Rights Watch, Seif al-Islam was involved in some of the most crucial trials in the fields of human rights and labour rights and in political activism in the Mubarak era.

But above all he was a pioneer. He rebelled incessantly against human rights violations committed during the rule of Hosni Mubarak and paid a high price for his efforts. He spent five years in prison in the 1980s. While there, he was beaten and tortured with electric shocks – an experience that would influence his later activities. "I decided that it is not enough to be politically active without addressing the issue of human rights as well," Seif al-Islam is quoted as saying by Human Rights Watch.

He studied law in prison and began working as a lawyer after his release in 1989. He increasingly dedicated himself to combating torture and judicial arbitrariness. "He influenced generations of human rights lawyers," says one memorial service attendee. "He had faith in his vision, even in moments of great fear."

More than just a lawyer

Leila Soueif, Ahmed Seif al-Islam's widow (photo: AP)
Profound grief at the loss of her husband: university professor Leila Soueif is a political activist, as are her three children

Many people here stress that Seif al-Islam was more than just a lawyer. They describe him as an indomitable fighter, a mentor, a friend and a model figure. "He was no slave to the letter of the law. He used it to negotiate and taught us how to use it creatively," says lawyer Khaled Ali.

But Seif al-Islam did not only alter perception of the judiciary. Together with his family, he was a driving force within the Egyptian democracy movement. His wife Leila Soueif is a university professor and a political activist, as are their three children.

His son, the blogger Alaa Abdel-Fattah, one of the leaders of the mass protests of 2011, was sentenced to 15 years in jail in June together with 24 other activists. They were accused of organising an illegal protest in late 2013, thereby contravening the law on demonstrations. One of his two daughters, Sanaa Seif, is in detention for campaigning for the release of her brother.

The law, which imposes massive restrictions on the right to assembly, triggered outrage around the world. Abdel-Fattah appealed the sentence. He also began a hunger strike after learning about his father's critical condition. The protest action attracted considerable support, and eventually succeeded: in mid-September, Abdel-Fattah was released on bail and the trial was provisionally suspended.

Now, Alaa Abdel-Fattah sits on the podium, talking about his father in a low voice. He says he found out about his father's death while in prison. He and his sister Sanaa Seif were allowed to attend the funeral under strict guard. His father liked to tell many stories, says Abdel-Fattah, for example about the time he spent within the Palestinian resistance movement in southern Lebanon, or about how he used to work as a taxi driver there to feed his family. He later drummed the following sentence into his son: "We can continue our resistance through the courts."

Ahmed Seif al-Islam was born in the Nile Delta in 1951. He was involved in the left-wing movement as a student. He graduated in politics, business and law. In 1999, he and others founded the "Hisham Mubarak Law Centre", named after the human rights activist Hisham Mubarak, who died in 1998. Through the centre, Seif al-Islam helped the victims of torture and human rights violations.

All are equal before the law

Alaa Abdel-Fattah (photo: by-sa-cc)
"We don't need to go crazy or feel any kind of loss. My father has left us everything we need to continue on his path," says Alaa Abdel-Fattah, son of the deceased human rights lawyer and activist Ahmed Seif al-Islam

He cared little for the political views of his clients, defending left-wingers, Islamists, atheists and homosexuals alike. He regularly took on sensitive cases. In 2001, for example, he defended around 52 men who had been arrested in a gay club. He also represented Karim Amer, the first Egyptian to stand trial for dissident blog entries. "Our great achievement is that legal issues are now part of the national discourse, of academic research, the media and the legal profession," Seif al-Islam told Human Rights Watch in 2007.

During the 2011 uprising, his centre became a refuge for the Tahrir Square revolutionaries. From there, they co-ordinated protests and the legal representation of detained demonstrators. This made Seif al-Islam himself a target of the security forces: in February 2011, he and 30 other lawyers and activists were detained for several days following a raid. But once again, he was not cowed by the experience. The centre remained a meeting place for human rights activists of all hues. Seif al-Islam was also the mental safety net on which young dissidents could rely in times of great upheaval.

"Without him, our resistance against the regime will be much harder," says a student standing outside the auditorium, as she draws on her cigarette. She also fought to topple Mubarak and experienced the brutality of the ruling Military Council that subsequently took power. "Now everything appears to be repeating itself," she says. Last summer, following the ousting of Mohammed Morsi, the new military leadership launched a determined crackdown on its critics. More than a thousand Muslim Brotherhood supporters were killed in street battles; thousands were arrested in the ensuing months; journalists were denigrated by state media; dozens of young revolutionaries were locked away.

"Egypt needs people like Ahmed Seif al-Islam more than ever," the student continues. Shortly before his death, Seif al-Islam himself issued a sober analysis of developments in his homeland. When his son was arrested again in January, he told journalists: "I would have liked you to inherit a democratic society that protects your rights, my son. Instead I passed on to you the prison cell that once detained me and that now detains you."

The auditorium falls silent when Alaa Abdel-Fattah steps up to the microphone again. "We don't need to go crazy or feel any kind of loss. My father has left us everything we need to continue on his path." Hundreds of people get to their feet. The ensuing applause goes on for several minutes.

Andrea Backhaus

© Qantara.de 2014

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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