Ahmad Seif el-Islam Hamad: Egypt loses a tireless champion of human rights

The death of Ahmad Seif el-Islam Hamad robs the Egyptian human rights movement of one of its ablest defenders in its hour of greatest need.

The lawyer and activist, who died on Wednesday aged 63, spent more than three decades fighting against abuses.

“The loss of Ahmad Seif is a crushing blow to the human rights movement in Egypt and across the world,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

“Seif stood for the human rights of everyone, whoever they were and whatever they believed.”

As a prominent lawyer known for his work on landmark cases, Amnesty International often sought Ahmad Seif el-Islam Hamad’s advice.

The organization’s representatives came to rely on his guidance, experience and good humour.

His friends in the movement, some of whom knew him for many years, have spoken of their deep sorrow at his passing.

In an interview with Amnesty International in 2008, Ahmad Seif el-Islam Hamad explained how he decided to take up the cause of human rights after being tortured in jail in 1983.

“Torture is like a cancer that eats up the nation’s youth and its ability to change, rebel and criticise. Hence I decided that this is my domain,” he said. 

“It is no use getting consumed in a political struggle against despotism without securing the ordinary citizen a measure of rights.”

Ahmad Seif el-Islam Hamad kept busy in prison, completing a degree in law to complement his previous qualification in political science.

A self-described leftist, he fought for clients as a matter of principle, regardless of whether their politics echoed his own.

Over the course of 30 years, he defended the authorities’ political opponents, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood and a group of young activists detained in 2008 for supporting a workers’ strike in Mahalla.

He also challenged the authorities’ rhetoric of security at the expense of human rights, notably defending residents of the Sinai Peninsula arrested in pre-dawn sweeps after the Taba bombings in 2004.

He also championed freedom of expression in 2007 defending a blogger detained for criticizing Hosni Mubarak and Islam.

In 2001, he chose to represent dozens of men alleged to be homosexuals in what became known as the “Queen Boat” case.

Regarded as a father figure by many human rights lawyers and activists, in 1999 Ahmad Seif el-Islam Hamad co-founded the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre – an organization that helped expose rampant human rights violations, including the use of torture and ill-treatment.

The centre, which also became known as a school of sorts for up-and-coming human rights lawyers, is one of the many non-governmental organizations whose activities could be curtailed in new laws and measures that form part of a widening crackdown on civil society.

“Ahmad Seif el-Islam Hamad helped to found a human rights movement that grew from a few courageous individuals in the mid-1980s into the thriving and diverse community that exists today,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

“He often spoke of his hope for the next generation of human rights activists, and so it is deeply sad that his passing comes when their future has been thrown into doubt.”

Ahmad Seif el-Islam Hamad was widely known for his human rights work, but he and his family paid a heavy price for standing up to the authorities. 

The lawyer was detained several times, including during the 2011 uprising when security forces raided the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre and arrested him and his staff, along with representatives of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. 

In his final years, Ahmed Seif el-Islam Hamad found himself working as a lawyer for his children, who had become well-known activists in their own right. 

His son, Alaa Abd El Fattah, has been repeatedly detained by the authorities and is currently in prison for breaking Egypt’s repressive protest law. 

Ahmed Seif el-Islam Hamad’s daughter, Sanaa Ahmed Seif, is known for her human rights work and faces trial on charges of breaking the protest law.

Defending her in court last June, Ahmad Seif el-Islam Hamad drew laughter after he poured scorn on a process which he regarded as a mockery of justice.

During a break in the proceedings, he joked that he was old and sick and had no purpose in the court, as the judge did not understand basic legal concepts.

Ahmed Seif el-Islam Hamad’s other daughter, Mona Seif, helped to found a group that campaigns for the release of civilians who are facing military trials.

Ahmad Seif el-Islam Hamad recently said that he had hoped his offspring would inherit a more democratic system. Instead, he said, they had inherited the prison cells.

He remained an inspiration until the end of his life, never losing hope. On social networks, activists said they had been “orphaned” by his death.

Ahmad Seif el-Islam Hamad is survived by his wife, the activist and academic Laila Soueif, and their three children.