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In Memory of a Hero

August 29, 2014

I’ve been away from updating RSDWatch for too long, and I apologize. Complaints have been duly noted, and new updates will be coming soon.


But before I return to the subject of refugees and UNHCR, let me take
advantage of this space to offer one of many remembrances of a great man who had a tremendous personal and professional influence on me. Ahmed Seif al-Islam Hamad, one of the giants of human rights activism in Egypt and my first mentor, died this week.

A Communist in his youth, Ahmed Seif was imprisoned and brutally tortured in 1983. He spent five years as a political prisoner, and used the time to complete a law degree.

He famously defended everyone’s rights, no matter their unpopularity, no matter the political winds. In 2001, Egyptian police arrested dozens of people at the Queen Boat club in Cairo and accused them of being gay. They were brutally tortured, but some of Egypt’s largest human rights organizations ran away from the case, fearing the unpopularity of defending homosexuality. Ahmed Seif defended them.

He also defended Islamists and especially members of the Muslim Brotherhood throughout his career, although he was himself staunchly anti-religious. He recalled that early in his career, “The Communists would say secretly, ‘It doesn’t matter if Islamists are tortured.’ And the Islamists would say, ‘Why not torture communists?’” Ahmed Seif defended all.

I met him for the first time in 1998 at the Center for Human Rights Legal Aid, where I spent seven months as a legal intern. He was my supervisor when I worked on a refugee case for the first time. He was the first person to teach me, to really teach me, what it meant to be a lawyer, and especially what it meant to be a human rights lawyer. When he read the first project that I had done for him,  he brought me a cup of strong Egyptian tea, lit a cigarette, handed me my papers back, and said, “You have given us beautiful words. But you have proven nothing.” I revised, and I got better.

I mostly remember him laughing. He seemed constantly able to find something to laugh about. He made sure to show me things that would be difficult for an American kid in Egypt to see without a guide. He took me to an Egyptian street wedding in a Cairo slum that was not even marked on most maps. He took me to a family home in the countryside, where his wife, Leila Soueif, an activist and mathematician, taught me how to make Egyptian rice. I remember Ahmed Seif chasing chickens in the yard. He liked to remind people that he had grown up in the Nile Delta. I remember him serving me watermelon, and then joking that the quality was low. “I can say this,” he said, “because I am a farmer.” At the end of my internship, he drove me to the airport in the dead of night, so that I would not have to pay for a taxi.

Ahmed Seif could have gone into exile, but he stayed in Egypt and as far as I know he travelled very rarely by the standards of human rights activists. I am not sure I have ever met a man who loved his country so much. But yet his thinking knew no borders. He would connect a new development in Egypt with a trend in the United States, India, South Africa. He would sometimes get lost in thought, then make a sudden observation about a new legal question or political dynamic, and would inevitably conclude: “We must do research.”

He taught me two critical lessons about human rights law for which I am especially grateful.

First, despite a lifetime of pain at the hands of Egypt’s dictators, Ahmed Seif told me to always be surprised by injustice. Not really surprised, of course. We know that oppression is, objectively, common. But once we treat it as normal, we lose our ability to be outraged. We become part of the problem.

Second, Ahmed Seif told me once about the Egyptian Constitution: “Our law is not perfect. But we try to take it seriously.” I have always tried to take this heart. Every lawyer everywhere knows that our legal systems are riddled with problems. They never quite live up to the ideals they espouse. But law – even flawed law –  embodies our highest aspirations as a civilization. The idea that we have rules, rights and remedies.

Our law is not perfect. But we try to take it seriously.

When I worked for Ahmed Seif in 1998, my wife and I hosted an American Thanksgiving dinner at our apartment in Cairo. Ahmed Seif brought his oldest child, Alaa, who was 17. I also remember his middle child Mona, who was a young teenager, and his  youngest, Sanaa, who was in elementary school. Sanaa used to come to the office and run around the dusty desks in the afternoon. Today, she is behind bars for attending a protest. So is Alaa, who was sentenced to 15 years. They are political prisoners like their father before them.

Earlier this year, Ahmed Seif said at a press conference: “Alaa, I wanted you to inherit a democratic society that guards your rights, my son, but instead I passed on the prison cell that held me and now holds you.”

For now, their family stands out as a personal embodiment of the tragedy of the Egyptian revolution. But I know, eventually, Ahmed Seif would still find a reason to laugh, an ability to be surprised, and he would tell everyone to keep taking law seriously.

I thank you.


One Comment
  1. August 30, 2014 10:12 am

    Ahmed Seif was also one of the first persons I met in Egypt. Thank you Mike,for writing such a beautiful memoir of him. God help Egypt.

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