Hossam Bahgat, one of Egypt’s leading human rights activists, came to the Mission Campus on March 20 to receive the 2014 Katharine and George Alexander Law Prize. Bahgat is the founder and former executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a Cairo-based independent organization created in 2002 to defend human rights in Egypt. Since the 2011 revolution, EIPR has expanded its work to include transitional justice, the protection of civil liberties and political rights, promotion of economic and social justice, and reform of the criminal justice system. Here is an edited version of Bahgat’s acceptance speech.
Since my undergraduate years at Cairo University, I have been keenly aware of the importance of the legacy that one leaves behind. And even back then—this was the early 2000s—Egypt was not witnessing any events worthy of historical record. Still, I happened to be very mindful of the fact that one’s single contribution to history really was how one chose to spend one’s life.
|Hossam Bahgat: “We never gave up. We did what we could, and the rest is up to you.” Photo by Nancy Martin
So, fresh out of school when we graduated, most of my friends and colleagues chose to either leave the country, join the foreign service as political science graduates, or become members of Mubarak’s ruling party, which had been in government since the 1950s. I was among those who chose to stay.
My choice to stay in Egypt—to engage in the highly unequal (then) fight for equality, dignity, and human rights—was not driven by any belief that the autocratic regime would ever crumble and fall in my lifetime. Rather, I was driven by the simple question: What would the next generation say? How would they see us and how would they describe the choices we made in our lifetime? Back then, the regime seemed invincible, the injustices were structural, and the abuses were too widespread and systematic. Social change was a distant dream.
My decision to join others in fighting these very grim realities was driven by this notion of legacy. It was essential to keep the fight for social justice and change alive. It was essential to hand over the torch to the next generation with a message that said, “We never gave up. We did what we could, and the rest is up to you.”
Little did I know that in my lifetime—in fact, less than 10 years later—I’d be standing among hundreds of thousands of Egyptians from all walks of life, chanting, “Bread, freedom, social justice.” The people wanted the fall of the regime. It was a different country completely, and how fortunate we were to have been part of this historic moment three years ago.
Today, as you all know, we are still engaged in a fierce battle against a counterrevolution that seeks to take away those dreams we came so close to achieving in 2011. Once more, but this time with a greater sense of history, we find ourselves engaged in a fight against military dictatorship in Egypt. This time, just like 10 years ago, we choose to stand our ground, we choose to fight back, not because victory is likely on our side or is likely in our lifetime—and I do believe it is—but mostly because we cannot allow despair and surrender to be our legacy. What would the next generation say?
In addition to this notion of legacy, our fight for social justice and democratic changes is also an act of self-defense. Today’s victims could be the poor, the marginalized, the loyalists of the deposed Islamist regime. But if we allow those injustices to stand unopposed, tomorrow’s victims will most certainly be us.
So we fight to expose abuse, to challenge unjust laws and policies, to win court battles, to release the unfairly incarcerated, and to prosecute those who commit egregious violations with impunity. But we also fight a war of narratives. We bear witness to these injustices so that the history of our times is not left to be written by the same abusive powerful rulers, so that the next generations could learn from our mistakes and could strive for a better life for all.
|Human rights in context: International law scholar Beth Van Schaak and Middle East expert Farid Senzai join Hossam Bahgat for a conversation on the legacy of the Arab Sprint, women’s rights, and balancing national security and human rights. Read a transcript of their discussion. Photo by Nancy Martin
And so in light of all of this, I was immensely impressed by what I learned about the essential work that the students and faculty of this school are engaged in to address the injustices of this local community and beyond—whether through the International Human Rights Clinic, the Center for Social Justice and Public Service, the Katharine and George Alexander Community Law Center, or the unequaled international programs that allow students to partake in the global fight against oppression and against inequality. These are truly great efforts that are worthy of your utmost support.
I understand that this is a challenging time in this country for legal education and for the legal profession in general, and I strongly urge you as you deal with these challenges to also guard this precious part of your mission, to continue to cultivate social change leaders who then go on to join citizens from all over the world in the fight for better and more equal societies—because I can think of no better legacy for an academic institution to leave behind.