Haggag Nayel:

The Arab Human Rights Movement
has Achieved many of its Ambitions

The Arab Program for Human Rights Activists (APHRA) is a regional human rights organization concerned with defending human rights in the Arab World. The objectives of the organization are similar to those of Front Line which works on an international level from its base in Ireland. The APHRA was registered in Cairo in April 1997 as a practical and positive development in collective dialogue regarding the problems, needs and aspirations of activists working in human rights in the Arab World. For many years this Program has served and strengthened the Arab human rights movement in various Arab countries. The BHRM interviewed the President of the APHRA, Haggag Nayel and asked him the following questions:

To what extent have you been able to achieve the ambitions of the APHRA?

The APHRA was established as non-profitable and non-governmental organization in 1997. During this period, the political and human rights situation in the Arab World was quite different because the number of activists was no more than 600. Also, defending human rights was restricted politically and legally. For example, the Egyptian law of Private Association and Institutions Act No. 32 of 1964 did not allow civil society organizations to work in the human rights field. For this reason, the human rights activists in Egypt resorted to establishing non- profitable companies according to the civil law in order to avoid the restrictions of this law which was referred to as Act. 37.

Moreover, the NGOs at that time did not succeed in spreading a human rights culture in the region. As a result of this, controversies spread regarding the political backgrounds of human rights activists, which accused them of following Western agendas. Additionally, several human rights activists were arrested and detained during this period in Egypt, Tunis, Morocco and Syria. The program started its practical activities during a time of great restrictions in the Arab region. During this period, countries such as Saudi Arabia and Libya had no human rights organisations whatsoever. There were also some countries in which the human rights movements worked abroad. For instance, the Sudanese human rights organisation conducted their activities from Cairo. Also, during the eighties, the Bahraini Human Rights Society carried out its activities from Europe and the Bahraini Committee for Human Rights established its headquarters in Damascus. In addition to this, the Arab Organisation for Human Rights, which was rejected by all Arab countries, was registered in Cyprus. From this came the need to establish the APHRA in order to defend activists wherever they may be and discuss their problems and needs as well as their requirements and ambitions.

Looking at the situation of the activists in the Arab World- despite the existence of complications, problems and violations- it is possible to say that:

-the Arab movement for human rights has achieved a lot of its aspirations on both quantitative and qualitative levels. On the quantitative level, the number of organisations concerned with defending human rights in the Arab World has increased significantly as well as the number of activists concerned with defending human rights. On the qualitative level, the Arab movement has accomplished greatly such as developing a human rights syllabus for schools and universities. Also, terms such as human rights and civil society have now been included in the official discourse of Arab countries. The laws of Arab countries have also permitted the establishment of human rights organisations and the security forces no longer interfere directly in their activities. In general, the APHRA has succeeded in achieving a large part of its ambitions and objectives with the cooperation and partnership of the Arab human rights movement.

You say that part of your objectives is to create new mechanisms to protect human rights activists in the Arab World and support the continuous communication between human rights activists; in addition to creating an independent voice for expressing their needs and problems. How far did you succeed in this?

Undoubtedly, the objectives of the APHRA were put forward during special historical and political circumstances. Hence, these circumstances affected our visions and objectives during the establishment of the program. However, we have succeeded in achieving many of our aspirations. For instance, in 1999 we discussed the issue of female activists in Morocco and also brought together activists and their organisations in the Arab World and those working in exile in Paris in 2001. We also published reports and recommendations and organised media and legal campaigns, which allowed us to say that we were behind the return of many exiles to resume their activities in their countries.

Moreover, the Al-Nushata’ magazine- we have published 32 editions so far- has become an independent voice for all activists’ opinions and problems despite their diversity. The continuous communication with the activists is a constant mechanism and objective of the Program. This is achieved through the use of modern technological means as well as an enormous network of co-ordinators and correspondence, which covers the whole Arab region.

There are many national legislations in the Arab World that need to be made compatible with international conventions and agreements; especially those which constitute an obstacle to human rights activists. What is the role of the APHRA in encouraging the Arab governments to achieve this?

Generally, the legislations in the Arab World need to be changed in order to agree with the International Bill for Human Rights especially, the laws relating to civil society organizations, the media, publications, state security, martial law, penal codes and political parties.

Due to the importance of this issue, it has always been at the centre of the attention of the APHRA since its establishment. The APHRA is in the process of releasing a series of reports to discuss this subject, seven of which have already been published and discussed the legislations in: Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan, Bahrain and Yemen. This is in addition to publishing the first edition of Railings, which discusses the Arab laws and regulations that restrict civil and political rights in the Arab World. The second edition of Railings, which is still under printing, tackles laws and regulations that limit or restrict the economic, social and cultural rights in the Arab World . Moreover, the ‘urgent statement’ method is used by the Program as an active and quick mechanism constantly throws the light on one of the legal articles, which need to be changed or amended in the Arab countries. The APHRA organised a comprehensive project for two years entitled ‘Together for the Elimination of Laws and Special Courts’ in Egypt which resulted in the abolishment of some military orders as well the State Security Law of 1980 that was established in accordance to Law No. 105.

Most reports issued by international human rights organisations criticise the human rights situation in the region. Is there a plan by the APHRA, with the cooperation of Arab human rights organisations and governments, to improve the human rights situation?

We don’t believe that the reports are criticising human rights in the region. The reports describe the reality of human rights and hence it seems that they are criticising the governments. The real problem lies in the fact that security forces are given wide authority in the Arab World. Therefore, we find that most human rights reports always end with recommendations directed at governments in order to develop human rights. The main objective of all human rights organisations is to develop human rights in the region

The APHRA cooperates with organisations and sometimes with ministries on several human rights projects. For example, we have organised a training project on the fair trial standards in Egypt, Bahrain and Morocco. The Bahrain Ministry of Justice launched this project and read the opening speech. We have no objection to cooperating with Arab governments as long as this will promote and improve human rights. APHRA has an ambitious project since 2005 entitled ‘Towards more Effective Roles for Activists in Social Issues’. The APHRA has been working on the issue of education in Egypt in order to improve the quality of educational products. This is in addition to increasing the role of civil society organisations in the partnerships of administering education in 2009-2011. Also, the APHRA has been working towards combating corruption in Egypt and emphasising the role of human rights organisations in this issue since 2008. The APHRA is also working on a project to support the decentralisation of councils. The strategic plan is available and is being implemented in steps and phases for assessment and amendment purposes.

The Arab human rights organisations are facing many difficulties and problems. Can you tell us about the difficulties and problems that have affected your performance?

The answer is quite difficult because we really did not have many problems and obstacles that stopped us from achieving our goals. This does not mean that our work is completely free of problems. It is possible to summarise our difficulties in the following:

Funding problems:

Local funding for human rights activities is almost non-existent in the region and most organisations depend on foreign funding for their human rights and development projects. Sometimes, the number of projects decreases due to the lack of funding, which affects our cause and objectives negatively.

Despite the lack of funding, we in the APHRA are able to maintain the continuation of certain activities such as: our magazine Al- Nushata’, the urgent statement and the regional reports concerning human rights.

Legal problems concerning funding:

The response of the government to funding requests is always delayed. According to Egyptian law Article 17, organisations are prohibited from receiving any funding from a foreign body, whether it is based in or outside Egypt, without the prior permission of the Ministry of Social Affairs. It is also prohibited to send any donation without prior permission- excluding books, newsletters, art and science magazines. For this reason, a delay in any funding request for more than six months threatens our activities. This has been the case over the last two years.

Problems relating to activities:

Sometimes governments have political calculations regarding specific human rights activities. Therefore, at times it forces hotels and clubs in which the activities take place to cancel their bookings. The APHRA has encountered similar problems during the project ‘Together to Save Darfur’ when the Egyptian Government cancelled the project in the first quarter of this year due to the Sudanese elections. This was based on the excuse that the project could strain relations with the Sudanese Government.

Currently there are many human rights organisations in all the Arab countries, and the APHRA is no longer alone in the region. What role do you play and what distinguishes you from international, Arab and regional organisations?

It is good that there are many human rights organisations in the Arab World and we hope to see even more in each Arab country. As this will improve the situation in the region and expand the foundation of the APHRA which aims to communicate with, and defend, human rights activists. However, a closer look at the new established human rights organisations during the last ten years shows that none of them is specifically concerned with defending human rights activists. For they are all concerned with human rights in general or specialise in defending a specific group of people or a specific right. Therefore, the APHRA is the only Arab institution in the region which is specialised in defending human rights activists in the Arab World.