Khaled Ali, Egyptian human rights lawyer on the future of his country and the relations with the EU

“Socio-economic problems”, answers Khaled Ali determined when we ask him about the roots of the revolution in Egypt. “Politicians care about political problems, but the socio-economic dimension is what mobilises people.” And what mobilises people mobilises Ali. When participating in the presidential elections he was presented as the Tahrir candidate but as a prominent human rights lawyer he already spoke up for the people when Tahrir was still a regular square in Cairo.

Ali started his career in the mid 1990’s. He quickly made a name as a fierce critic of Mubarak’s neo-liberal policies and as an advocate of labour rights. “In 2010 we entered a new experience” Ali says. “We started several law cases against the privatisation of public companies and dodgy land sale deals that took place under the previous regime. Much of them are illegal because they were sold much below their market value and without any form of public procurement.”

Ali initially won all of these cases and several large companies including the Shebin El-Kom Textiles Company, Tanta for Flax and Oil, and the Nasr Steam Boilers Company were renationalised. But in other cases, the companies are appealing. The companies and the economic elite of the country also joined forces and started a media campaign which warns for the impact on business confidence of these rulings. “We keep on fighting for implementing the rulings but we fear new laws are in the making that would overrule the public procurement law in order to protect the economic elite”, Ali explains.

For his continuous and outspoken battle for human rights and social justice Ali was awarded the 2011 anti-corruption award in Egypt. But his active role in the revolution wasn’t welcomed by everybody. During the last days of Mubarak’s reign he was detained for several days after a raid on the law centre where he works.

Last month he joined a delegation of Arab civil society representatives visiting Brussels to discuss relations between the EU and the Arab region with EU policy makers and European NGOs. He is here to get a sense of where the EU is heading. “I don’t expect anything from Europe. All that we want from Europe is that it stays away and doesn’t impose policies in the name of democracy.”

CB: You have been fighting against the privatisation process under Mubarak. Now that he is gone, does this make your battle any easier?
Ali: Mubarak is replaced by Mohamed Mosri (from the Muslim Brotherhood) but the same structure is still in place. A few different people are in office but they still apply the same methods and the same policies.

What is the influence of the Western financial institutions (IMF, WB, EIB) on these policy changes in the past decades?
All investments, loans, grants and other agreements that these institutions made with Egypt are accompanied with policies that push for privatisation. They are responsible for the shift from the development state we had in the 1960s and 1970 to the neo-liberal economy which is in place today. This process started under Sadat (Mubarak’s predecessor until 1981) and has been accelerated by Mubarak.

Is the government just following these policy changes or is it the main driver of it?
They are responding to the demands of western institutions but they implement them only partly. Public goods and public companies are passed on into private hands but this happens outside the democratic and sometimes even legal framework. The result is a liberalised economy but without any competition in place.

Has there been mainstream critique on these policies within Egypt?
Businessmen and economist support these policies but the people don’t. I try to make their voices heard through law cases or through my candidacy for the presidential election. In 2009 we enforced a law that determined a minimal wage for workers and I’ve been an active supporter of the role and the mobilisation of workers in the revolution.

In the West the media mainly focuses the break between Islamic and secular forces. Is this the most important break to focus on within Egypt society?
No, the important battle is about social justice and the implementation of social principles on the ground. International media are controlled by big capital and they don’t have an interest in covering the social struggle. Now the power struggle between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood has settled a bit, socio-economic themes are becoming more prominent however. Even the Muslim Brotherhood is talking about it now.

The EU says it supports ‘deep democracy’ in the region through - among other things - the more for more agenda through which it wants to tackle both political and economic roots of the revolution. Is this an appropriate instrument?
We reject the more for more policies because they simply don’t benefit us. They mainly aim to open markets for Europe. The EU is not a charity, when they come with money, they want something in return: more access to our markets. Our meeting with the external trade department was very clear. They believe that trade with Egypt didn’t go far enough. They are only interested in deepening the trade relations.
The revolutions did not just happen to demand more democracy. In essence it was a reaction against the current social and economic model. We are in dire need of a diverse economic model with room for the private sector, the government and cooperatives. We don’t find this balance in the EU’s approach.

Then what do you expect from the EU instead?
I don’t expect or need anything from Europe. All that we want from Europe is that it stays away and doesn’t impose policies in the name of democracy.

How do you look at the increasing role of Europe’s public banks, EBRD and EIB?
We are currently looking into that and gathering information. But given their track record we are very pessimistic about the future.

You are visiting Brussels to see EU policy makers and NGOs. What do you expect from your trip?
I’m here to get information to get a sense of where the EU is going. But all the people we see are rather policy implementers than policy makers. We can sit with them and talk with them but it is a dead end. The adjustments they propose will only sugarcoat the policy rather than change it. If you want to change something in Europe you have to talk to Merkel or Hollande.

You ran for president during last elections but beating the machinery of Mosri and Shafiq proved to be a mission impossible. Result, a year and a half after the revolution the conservative forces are still in place?
Elections are an industry. Many factors are involved but most importantly, I didn’t have the same campaign budget. I got a vote for every Egyptian pound I spent (that is 150,000). The big ones paid 40 Egyptians pounds per vote but they had the money to buy 5 million of them. That’s a big difference. Besides I was an independent candidate, not backed by a political party.

Will you continue to do politics?
There is no escape. I will try to combine my work as a lawyer with the political work. We need to fight both fronts at same time.