Combatting injustice from abroad: the diaspora’s role in transitional justice in Egypt

Supporters of deposed President Mohamed Mursi demonstrate as they slow drive through central London August 17, 2013. Supporters of Mursi fought a gunbattle with security forces in a Cairo mosque on Saturday, while Egypt's army-backed government, facing deepening chaos, considered banning his Muslim Brotherhood group.  REUTERS/Luke MacGregor (BRITAIN - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS RELIGION)

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The Egyptian diaspora community has increasingly become the first line of defense for victims of human rights violations in Egypt. Since a state-led transitional justice process is not possible in the present context of authoritarian rule, the diaspora community plays an important role in documenting and preserving information about crimes and injustices. This information could one day serve as the foundation for a movement toward accountability in Egypt.

The looming threat of arbitrary detention has become a daily reality for many Egyptians. Individuals are at risk of being detained on vaguely-defined “terrorism” charges even as they go about their regular errands. The specific targeting of journalists and civil society organizations has made clear that vocal opposition to the government is neither safe nor sustainable.

As an independent association located outside of Egypt, the Committee for Justice (CFJ) recognizes the need for outside actors to monitor the human rights situation inside the country. We established, for instance, the Justice Watch Archive to document and verify human rights violations. We rely on maintaining close contact with legal and human rights actors inside the country, gathering information from them and presenting it in an accessible and objective format, based on international legal standards.

In the short-term, CFJ’s goal is to raise awareness of patterns of human rights violations, safeguard the rights of victims, and advocate for the prosecution of perpetrators through international and regional mechanisms. The challenges are many: civil society has been largely unwilling, or unable, to objectively observe and document abuses, while many former rights defenders have been coerced into defending the government over the people. We know, however, that the only way to achieve justice and accountability in the future is to document as many violations as possible today.

When the door for a national transitional justice process eventually opens, it will be in large part due to this critical collaboration between domestic civil society and the diaspora community.   One of the most effective regional examples of such collaboration was the 2014 “Caesar” report, which documented the systematic killing of 11,000 civilians by Bashar al-Assad’s government during the Syrian civil war. This report led the U.S. government to pass the Caesar Syria Civil Protection Act in 2019, which allows for targeted sanctions against individuals who facilitate the actions of the al-Assad regime. This Caesar Act ultimately aims to promote accountability for the Syrian regime’s atrocities.

A ‘new future,’ defined by imprisonment

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s 2014 promise of a new future for youth has materialized; however, instead of employment, economic prosperity, and hope, this future is defined by mass detention and widespread fear of arbitrary arrest. The July 2013 military coup that installed el-Sissi gave security forces greater impunity, enabling them to continue to perpetrate human rights abuses. Rather than providing social services, the regime has allocated its limited finances to building 60 new prisons across the country. Security forces routinely employ severe tactics to limit dissent, including enforced disappearances, mass arrests and trials, and torture. Our data indicates that over 1,000 deaths have occurred inside Egyptian prisons and places of detention since June 2013, largely due to poor detention conditions.

While these actions clearly represent gross violations of human rights, they are increasingly institutionalized through constitutional amendments. Furthermore, Egypt’s fear-ridden civil society actors have failed to systematically and professionally observe and document these violations. The severe crackdown against all forms of political and social opposition has also deepened societal divisions along political, social, and religious lines.

There remains a small group of human rights defenders and civil society organizations that continue to advocate for human rights in Egypt’s repressive context. The risks these defenders and their families face both at home and abroad are many, including persecution, reputational damage, property seizure, and arrest. This constant danger limits the scope of their coverage and publication of their findings.

Accountability, from abroad

When Nelson Mandela asked, “How are we going to address the legacy of injustice and establish justice in its place?” after the Arab Spring, we did not have a ready response for Egypt.  And although this legacy has only grown stronger in the near-decade since Mandela’s question, important steps must still be taken to establish the foundation for a national reckoning with injustice and impunity.

The challenge of defending rights in Egypt has made it necessary to establish mechanisms to document and verify human rights violations. This is why CFJ established the Detention Watch Project, which examines violations inside prisons and the judicial system, as well as the Human Rights Data Sharing Platform, which facilitates collaboration on and sharing of case files with partners inside and outside Egypt. While these mechanisms are based outside Egypt, they serve as an extension of the domestic human rights movement. Crucially, they operate using the recognized methodology of international law and transitional justice standards.

Maintaining the right to truth and knowledge is fundamental to transitional justice and to any future justice movement. This right should be protected by a credible, professional, and impartial civil society, which documents atrocities and seeks to alleviate impunity through exposure. In this regard, we cannot rely on civil society actors in Egypt to campaign against human rights violations or to pursue transitional justice under perpetual repression.

CFJ’s current strategy focuses on strengthening collaboration between local civil society and the diasporic legal community, in order to safeguard the rights of victims, prosecute perpetrators, and pursue transitional justice in a post-authoritarian future. This diasporic community is particularly important because it includes individuals, organizations, and activists who can move, work, and coordinate between the local and the international in a climate of freedom and professionalism. The most important feature of our strategy is retaining local actors and developing their capacity to collect, classify, and arrange information and provide legal assistance to victims, while actors abroad work to preserve and archive evidence and documents.

By engaging the diaspora to monitor and document atrocities, we aim to achieve two primary goals. The first is to develop the potential of local civil society actors, helping them to build the necessary administrative and technical capacities, teams, and systems to engage in effective legal action at the international level. The second is to limit authorities’ ability to attack local actors and to confront authorities with facts about human rights violations.

There is no doubt that CFJ’s experience in working with both local and diaspora actors has greatly benefited Egyptian civil society by developing local capabilities and potential under international leadership that is institutional, impartial, and located in a relatively secure environment. This is the first step toward empowering the local civil society community to act at all levels as soon as political conditions improve, as well as to institutionalize and preserve the right to truth. While the time may not yet be ripe in Egypt for a national truth commission or domestic accountability for perpetrators, that does not mean that we should stand by idly as violations take place.