There is always light: Manal Bahey Al-Din Hassan on digital rights in Egypt

Every year at RightsCon, Access Now pays tribute to the work of Alaa Abd El-Fattah, an important figure in the Egyptian revolution who was sentenced by the Egyptian judiciary to five years in prison for “organizing without a permit a public demonstration” that criticized the military trials of civilians. This year, he wrote a letter to the RightsCon community from behind bars. The letter is a moving reflection on what it means to be a human rights advocate in what Alaa calls our “hugely reactionary” times. He identifies four things the global digital rights community should focus on, including continuing to fight for the internet as a space of “complexity and diversity.”

“My defeat was inevitable,” Alaa writes. Yet activists shouldn’t give up, because “on the question of whether the internet is a space in which we come together to enjoy, assert, practice, and defend universal rights and freedoms, you have much agency.”

So what does this mean for the people of Egypt? To learn more about the status of digital rights in Egypt, where activists are facing overreaching government restrictions on civil society, I reached out to Manal Bahey Al-Din Hassan. Manal is a “techie” par excellence — and she is also Alaa’s wife. Manal joined us for the RightsCon opening ceremony, where she shared her unique perspective on the future of the internet as a platform for the enjoyment of human rights.

To my mind, it is beyond a doubt that the Egyptian revolution has let down most those who fought the hardest for it. The government has imprisoned the country’s first elected president, and it now forbids nonprofit organizations from getting outside funding, effectively shutting down civil society work. Time after time, I’ve heard human rights advocates say that the socio-political situation in Egypt is worse now than what it was before the revolution.

I sat down with Manal to ask how she and the rest of the tech community in Cairo is dealing with the situation. Surprisingly, after listening to what she had to say, I came away inspired. As dark as it gets, some of us still have this ability to see the silver lining — the bright light from behind the clouds. They are not just surviving, but doing good, effective work — despite it all.

We spoke about what digital rights advocates can do to help people like Alaa and defend rights in Egypt, and also talked about a project Manal is working on to help educate and empower people in Egypt. Following is a lightly edited version of the interview.

Wafa Ben-Hassine: Hi Manal, how are you, and how is Alaa doing?

Manal Bahey Al-Din Hassan:  I’m keeping myself busy. As for Alaa, he is very bored. His moods go up and down. The good thing is that I can bring him books, although this ability is very limited —  especially if the books are in English — they cannot be too political or historical. They [law enforcement] once tried to take away his right to read in prison. Thankfully, some advocates launched a campaign against this, and the officers backed off a bit. On visiting day, officers ask us for every material item we carry with us, including books and whatever other material we have. The officers then take those items to national security authorities. They are typically cleared in the span of anywhere from two weeks to two months — you can never really know. The positive side of this is that we are actively educating the national security agents with our books. Someone reads it, writes a report about it, reviews it — all for the sake of controlling what Alaa may read in a literary book. [She laughs].

Wafa Ben-Hassine: How does it make you feel that Alaa went from being a symbol for freedom and revolution to the face of prisoners of conscience all around the world?

Manal Bahey Al-Din Hassan: The government wants to make an example of him. He is not alone: there are so many like him in the world. But Alaa is the face of self-perpetuated legend. It is the state itself that creates a legend out of him; then that very same state apparatus fights the legend they created. It is very hard to see him in prison, but sometimes you think: Is the government that small-minded? To target a peaceful techie [and dedicate so many resources to this endeavor]?

Wafa Ben-Hassine: Manal, where did human rights advocates go wrong? How did we fail Alaa and others in his situation?

Manal Bahey Al-Din Hassan: The strategy must change. We used to name and shame; and that used to be an effective mechanism. It worked. Now, the state just does not care about that. Even on the international stage – none of it matters anymore, especially with Trump’s administration: who will shame who? Al-Sissi and Trump are good allies.

Wafa Ben-Hassine: How can we get people around the globe to contribute to Alaa’s release?

Manal Bahey Al-Din Hassan: Well, this is the current status: Alaa faces multiple charges, and there is no guarantee that he will be freed after his current five-year sentence. There is one pending case that seems to have been closed. There is also one investigation that did not make it to the judiciary. Another case [under the charge of “insulting the judiciary”] is still open, and April 8 is the next session. The case will most likely be decided in May. This particular case involves several defendants, one of which is former president Mohamed al-Morsi. Internet users around the world can contribute by focusing on their respective communities at home. As Alaa says in his letter, people in the “global north” — or people who have real, actual human rights in their societies — should keep fighting to protect those rights. I say this because rolling back acquired rights in “democratic societies” becomes an easy justification for scaling back on human rights in other, less-democratic contexts — and in other countries such as Egypt. Fight for human rights in your own contexts so that our rights cannot be further eroded.

[Editor’s note: One case that speaks directly to Manal’s point is Bahrain. U.S. President Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, recently announced that the U.S. will no longer condition the sale of arms to Bahrain on the latter’s compliance with international human standards.]

Wafa Ben-Hassine: Do the authorities bother you for speaking about Alaa’s case internationally?

Manal Bahey Al-Din Hassan:  The most public conference I’ve attended so far is this year’s RightsCon. So far, the authorities have not bothered me when going in or out or out of the country – we will see if they will after this.

Wafa Ben-Hassine:  What are you working on now?

Manal Bahey Al-Din Hassan:  A tech group called Mushtarak. The group works on building the tech community in Egypt, and is based in greater Cairo. We have two distinct target audiences: people who want to learn about tech (CSOs, journalists, etc.), and we help them learn about digital security such as securing their communications and devices.

And then we have the “techies,” who are involved in our Web School. Our Web School is especially created for new web developers who want to advance their skills. It’s a year-long program. The program concludes with a mentoring period so that they can connect with groups and initiatives who need these skills.

We also have some more advanced, shorter-term crash courses: our Tech Pill. The Tech Pill focuses on a different subject each time, and is presented by a volunteer from the community.

Mushtarak wants to be a place where all technologists from all fields can come together and exchange ideas and support one another. This idea was born in 2011 and 2012 — and it is finally picking up again. I should also mention that our offices offer co-working space in the morning.

Wafa Ben-Hassine: That’s quite impressive, Manal. Thank you so much for sitting with me today. I hope you enjoy the rest of RightsCon, and see you soon.

It’s clear to me that while we still have quite a ways to go when it comes to digital rights awareness and advocacy in the Arab world, there are warriors everywhere. People like Manal persist in fighting for digital rights for everyone. When you consider how laws and policies created ostensibly to counter “terrorism” are used instead to silence human rights advocates, her work becomes all the more heroic.

To forge a way forward in our war-torn, politically compromised region, we are obliged to find the light where we can. If we cannot find any, it is on us to create it.