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Thursday, May 2, 2013

Egyptian Activist Defends Anti-Israel Tweets

A video profile of Mona Seif explaining her nomination as a finalist for the 2013 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.

An Egyptian activist issued a defiant response Thursday to critics who argue that her anti-Israel stance should disqualify her from consideration for a major international award.

The activist, Mona Seif, was named a finalist for the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders last week, based on her work to end military trials for civilians in Egypt. Days later, U.N. Watch, an affiliate of the American Jewish Committee that monitors international organizations for bias against Israel and intolerance, called on members of the award’s jury to “cancel Ms. Seif’s nomination” based on a series of anti-Israel tweets the group characterized as “her public advocacy of violence against civilians, terrorism, and war crimes.”

In a statement posted on Facebook, Ms. Seif â€" a scientist and blogger who helped document and explain the protest movement that forced President Hosni Mubarak from office in 2011 on her popular @Monasosh Twitter feed and in interviews from Tahrir Square â€" defended Twitter comments in which she praised attacks on an Egyptian pipeline bringing gas to Israel, cheered the burning of an Israeli flag pulled from the country’s besieged embassy in Cairo, and rejected criticism of armed Palestinian militants from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

“One of the rights that we, the young people of Egypt, have succeeded in seizing is the right to insult our own government and to insult anyone whose policies are bad for our people,” Ms Seif wrote Thursday. “We insist on this right.”

Later in the statement, Ms. Seif also insisted that she did not mean to endorse attacks on Israeli civilians in one of the tweets singled out by U.N. Watch, an angry reply to a message posted on Twitter by Amnesty International during Israel’s Gaza offensive in November.

Ms. Seif insisted on Thursday that her comment was simply a rejection of the rights group’s call for Palestinian militants to cease fire. “I have never called for nor celebrated attacks on civilians,” she wrote. “My position is very clear: I support people’s right to resist occupation and I resist all attempts at portraying the siege of a predominantly civilian population by the world’s fourth most powerful army as one of ‘equivalence.’”

She signed off with a pledge to not be distracted from her work by “vulgar slandering” from U.N. Watch and its supporters and an obscenity-laced call for ill-will towards the Jewish state to continue “until there’s justice for the Palestinians.”

One day earlier, Ms. Seif had responded in a similar vein to Twitter users who accused her of being a “radical anti-Semite” and a “Muslim terrorist.”

As U.N. Watch stressed in a press release, two less-prominent Egyptian bloggers, Maikel Nabil and Amr Bakly, have publicly opposed Ms. Seif’s nomination for the award.

At one stage in a Twitter conversation about the controversy, the two men accused the international rights groups that chose Ms. Seif as a finalist for the award of being “a front for the Egyptian General Intelligence, not human rights organizations.”

As The Lede explained in 2011, when Mr. Nabil was jailed for criticizing the military on his blog, many of the Egyptian activists who supported his right to freedom of expression, and demonstrated against his imprisonment, were strongly critical of his pro-Israel stance.

This week, supporters of Ms. Seif reminded Mr. Nabil, whose recent lecture in Israel was sponsored by U.N. Watch, that she had campaigned hard for his release, despite their political differences.

A number of leading Egyptian bloggers came to Ms. Seif’s defense. One, Wael Khalil, suggested that her adversaries had chosen someone unlikely to retreat.

Ms. Seif’s extended family includes several well-known rights activists. Her father, Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hamed, is a prominent lawyer and human rights activist who worked with the Cairo-based Hisham Mubarak Law Center during the Mubarak era, and was jailed for five years during the 1980s. Her mother, Laila Soueif, is an activist and a professor at Cairo University. Her brother, Alaa Abd El Fattah, is a leading blogger and activist who was imprisoned before and after the 2011 revolution for his writing and activism.

Mr. Abdel Fattah has repeatedly defended the use of violent resistance against the security forces of an unjust state. At the start of an address to the Personal Democracy Forum in New York in 2011, Mr. Fattah joked that the most important technology used by protesters to defend Tahrir Square from attacks by the authorities was “rocks.”

Ms. Seif’s aunt, Ahdaf Soueif, a novelist and cultural commentator, said the attack on her niece had come with “boring predictability.”

Ken Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, was one member of the award jury to receive a letter from U.N. Watch this week urging him to cancel Ms. Seif’s nomination. Asked by The Lede for his response to the controversy, Mr. Roth replied in an e-mail:

HRW staff nominated two human rights defenders, and one made it through as a finalist (not Mona). Voting on the finalists will take place in October in a secret ballot by the 10 human rights groups on the jury, including HRW. HRW researchers speak on the videos about all three finalists - as do some other jury members.

HRW never takes a position on whether a country or rebel group should go to war or engage in “resistance.” Our focus is on how wars are fought, and we oppose any deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on civilians. I haven’t seen anything indicating that by “resistance” Mona means attacking civilians.