For the last 22 years, amid varying political circumstances in Egypt, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) has always held its annual human rights summer school for youth, but this year—declared to be the “year of youth” by President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi—we are suspending the activity indefinitely. It is currently impossible to find a safe space for young people to gather for learning or creative purposes, and prison is the fate of any person interested in public affairs.
The idea to hold the three weeks’ summer school course on human rights was first conceived in 1993, at a time when violent extremism and terrorism were rampant in Egypt and capable of attracting substantial numbers of educated and university youth and inculcating them with the extremist values. The CIHRS believed, and continues to believe, that extremist thought can only be countered with knowledge, empowerment, and education and that a proper pedagogical approach can provide a satisfactory foundation for ethical and moral development to confront corruption, terrorism, injustice, torture, killing, harassment, and rape.
For more than 20 years, the summer school was grounded in a critical approach to the traditional academic education system, aspiring to connect academic instruction with an ethical sense, sociability, cooperativeness, a desire to help others, and a sense of moral responsibility. It did so by creating a safe climate for discussion between diverse parties that could tangibly foster improvements in the community environment, reduce social injustice, and counter a culture of hatred and violence.
More than 1,200 young men and women graduated from the summer school to begin a life of public engagement. Our alumni include rights advocates, politicians, journalists, researchers, diplomats, judges, businesspeople, artists, film directors, and founders of pioneering social initiatives that proactively and peacefully address social and economic problems in their communities. As part of the summer school program, participants explored the intellectual roots of human rights in Arab culture and various religions, cultures, and civilizations, not only as a theoretical exercise, but through practical experience. Diversity was at the core of the selection of participants and trainers at the three weeks long summer school. The different cultural, ethnic, religious, sexual, geographical, ideological and political segments of the society were always represented.
The summer school program worked to bring participants and trainers from other Arab countries and broaden the discussion and range of experiences. Achieving such diversity is no longer possible at the current time. There have been repeated difficulties entering the country and genuine threats for participants coming from outside Egypt, and Egyptian participants themselves are no longer safe. Simply participating in an activity organized by a rights group makes them subject to suspicion and abuse and could land them in prison, like several alumni of the summer school in previous years.
One of the most important outputs of the summer school were the artistic works created by participants—theatrical dramatizations, choral numbers, photography, drawing, cartoon, and graffiti exhibits, and short documentary films. These along with student-designed awareness-raising campaigns and research were used by participants as mediums to express their conception and vision of human rights in their respective societies. These activities have now become targets for security threats and raids and may be banned. In short, by coming together to participate in the summer school program, the more than 50 young men and women participants are risking their safety and security.
Unfortunately, Egypt is no longer a safe space for any peaceful, creative activity, and there is no room for such pursuits. In today’s Egypt, fighting corruption is a crime punishable with prison (for example, Hisham Geneina- former head of the Central Auditing Authority), protesting legally and peacefully the sale of national territory is a crime requiring solitary confinement (Malek Adly and others), and academic and scientific research holds the threat of death (Giulio Regeni) or prison (Ismail Al-Iskandarani, Hisam Gaafar, and others). Even complying with professional ethics and norms in journalism is a crime for which Journalists’ Syndicate officials and newspaper owners may be punished, and dozens of journalists and photojournalists are currently behind bars (for example, photographer Shawkan and Salah Diab, the owner of al-Masry al-Youm). The mere procession at home of leaflets that call for the rights of inmates to proper health care according to the laws is considered as a crime punishable by 6 months of pretrial detention (Dr. Tarek Mokhtar and his commarades). People devoting their time to work with homeless street children may find themselves facing fabricated charges and sitting in pretrial detention for more than two years despite the law (Aya Hegazy and Biladi Foundation volunteers). After this, satirizing desperate conditions through song or art become a crime punishable with prison (Street Children Troupe) and putting flowers on the graves of martyrs is such a grave threat to public peace that it is punished with death (Shaimaa al-Sabbagh). The defense of human rights becomes a smear and an accusation and proponents of human rights are defamed and accused of treason and collaboration, their assets confiscated and their organizations shut down.
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