International studies, Economics, and Political Science major Omar El Zoheiry ’13 (Cairo, Egypt) spent the summer working in Egypt for Human Rights Watch, chronicling the events of Arab Spring 2011. Following is a Q&A we recently conducted with him.
Q: Tell us about your internship with Human Rights Watch.
A: As a HRW researcher, I was assigned to a wide variety of tasks, all related to the January 2011 Revolution and Egypt’s ongoing process of democratization. Short-term tasks involved gathering information, verifying facts, and writing reports with the aim of answering a specific question or collecting the necessary background information required by one of the head researchers in order to write a press release. Longer-term projects almost always necessitated calling lawyers, meeting politicians, attending press conferences, and collaborating with other human rights organizations such as The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI). I guess research at HRW could be described as a three-way fusion between the typical work of a lawyer, a journalist, and a detective.
Q: Has justice been served in post-Mubarak Egypt?
A: Many different kinds of justice are owed to many different groups of Egyptians, making this difficult to answer. But there is a specific debt of justice I’d like to address, due to its immediacy and importance in Egyptian democratization: the debt of justice owed the victims of the January Revolution. In the 18 days between the start of the revolution and the overthrow of Mubarak, 841 civilian-protestors were killed by state security police in an attempt to incite fear into the remaining protestors and disperse them. The opposite happened, and the premature death of so many young Egyptians fueled the revolution and made it possible to dream and demand the unthinkable: the ousting of Mubarak and his regime.
It is to those brave few that we owe the success of our revolution. In an attempt to do justice to their deaths, the authorities initiated a short investigation that concluded in 18 court trials in which almost 100 police officers were charged with the murder or attempted murder of protestors. The days passed and the number grew to about 40 trials and 200 defendants. People wanted to believe that justice would be delivered in these trials. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Instead, the trials led to a string of 20 acquittals that freed over half of the defendants, including the high-profile security officials acquitted in the Mubarak trial. Furthermore, none of the five convictions could be considered satisfactory.
There’s no doubt that Egypt’s elected method of delivering justice to the victims of the January 2011 Revolution and their families, court trials, has failed. The question remains why. Were the acquittals of so many officers an act of corruption? Was it due to a lack of evidence? How credible is the self-defense arguments employed by most defendants? Is it true that, as many NGOs claim, the evidence was tampered with before the trials began? What are we to make of the death threats made and bribes offered to witnesses and victims’ families? These are some of the questions I’m trying to answer in one of my projects.
Q: What will happen in Egypt in the next few years?
A: A: It’s too early to guess. Egypt is a country without a constitution, without a clear political identity or path (religious or secular state? Presidential or Parliamentary republic?), and without prior democratic experience. While Egypt is not currently on the brink of another uprising, so many political ideologies exist that a collision seems inevitable. In government, the adherents of these ideologies wield conflicting administrative and judicial powers. On the street, opposing ideologues are becoming increasingly impatient, and after 30 years of neglect are refusing to wait any longer for their demands to be met. I believe that much will be revealed once the new Egyptian constitution has been ratified and the new parliament elected. I am optimistic and believe that Egypt is on the right path to a just, peaceful, and democratic state.
Q: Are you discouraged from doing future human rights work?
A: Not in the slightest. In fact, I am currently working at the Advocates for Human Rights as an intern in their International Justice program. In addition to perfectly complementing my education, my work with the Advocates offers me the unique chance of remaining involved with human rights and rule of law issues in Egypt! That said, my future ambitions do stray slightly from the work I’m doing now, as I have various legal and political aspirations. Whatever I do, it will remain within the realm of human rights.
Q: Which professors or classes have influenced you most at Mac?
A: Three professors have been particularly influential: Wendy Weber, with whom I took Global Governance and Introduction to International Human Rights; James Von Geldern, who taught my first International Studies course, Introduction to International Codes of Conduct, which ratified my legal ambitions; and David Blaney, whose new course, Advanced International Theory, introduced me to the extensive literature on “democratization,” a topic I intend to explore in my Poli Sci and IS senior seminars (which I am currently taking with professors Weber and Von Geldern). I owe a lot to those three professors, who have helped me inside and outside the classroom, and highly recommend their courses to all political science and IS majors.
Q: What are your post-college plans?
A: I intend to go to graduate school in the U.S. or the UK and then pursue a career in Egypt as a criminal lawyer while slowly climbing my way up the political ladder to the senate. However, apart from graduate school, all my plans are subject to change. As things currently stand, pursuing a legal career in Egypt is the equivalent of condemning myself to a lifetime of unemployment. I’m hoping that changes by the time I finish grad school.
Zoheiry is among Macalester's Davis United World College Scholars.