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International Law News

International Law News, Summer 2021

Turmoil, Training, and Transformation During the Egyptian Revolution

Gregg Brelsford


  • Presently, we live in a world of ferocious attacks on the rule-of law by dictatorial and autocratic national governments, and terrorist groups. It seems that these governments and groups are widely using the same “worst practices” rule of law assault manual.
  • We need to learn about what happens, and what makes a difference, in global rule-of-law development programs through first-hand stories.
  • Author Gregg B. Brelsford recounts his experience in Egypt with the ABA Rule of Law Initiative.
Turmoil, Training, and Transformation During the Egyptian Revolution
Armand Tamboly via Getty Images

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The rule of law bakes no bread, it is unable to distribute . . . [food or clothing] . . . (it has none), and it cannot [easily] protect itself against external assault, but it remains the most civilized and least burdensome conception of a state yet to be devised.

Michael Oakeshott, The Rule of Law in What Is History? And Other Essays

Recently, there has been little widely-available documentation of the on-the-ground practice, experience, and accomplishments of the American Bar Association’s (ABA), Rule of Law Initiative (ROLI), one of modern history’s great global rule-of-law development strategies. Granular stories of ROLI’s work in high-turmoil settings are rare. Presently, we live in a world of ferocious attacks on the rule-of law (ROL) by dictatorial and autocratic national governments, and terrorist groups. It seems that these governments and groups are widely using the same “worst practices” rule of law-assault manual. In these precarious times, it is important that first-hand stories be told. We need to learn about what happens, and what makes a difference, in global rule-of-law development programs.

A. Turmoil

A machine gun clattered sharply in the distant darkness as I answered an emergency 3:00am phone call from ROLI’s Washington, DC headquarters. The directive: Get out of there. Groggily, I scrambled to pack and flee the violence exploding in Cairo on August 13, 2013. The crescendo of bloody street-battles between the Egyptian army that ousted former president Mohamed Morsi six weeks earlier, and the Muslim Brotherhood he belonged to, was spiking. After nearly six weeks of this, the exasperated ROLI Middle East regional director ordered her two American lawyers, the Country Director and me, to leave Egypt immediately.

She gave us three hours to gather the barest of belongings and arrange a taxi to the airport. In the eerie quiet of the early dawn shadows, as Muslims kneeled on their prayer mats, and before another day of fierce battle erupted, we rushed to catch a flight out. We raced past abandoned remains of burned-out cars, battered barricades, and broken tear gas canisters that littered the streets from recent clashes.

The regional director's prescient wisdom was quickly and dramatically borne out. The morning after our plane took off the Egyptian government forcibly removed thousands of protesters dug-in to encampments in two of Cairo’s public squares, Al-Nahda Square and Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square. Approximately 1,000 protestors, soldiers, and police officers died, and more than 1,400 were injured. The interim government declared a month-long state of martial law and a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

We evacuated to Amman, Jordan, not knowing if we would ever return to our staff and friends, our urgent rule of law work, or the belongings we left behind. Amman was the location of the ROLI office nearest to Cairo and the ROLI-Jordan staff took us in as family. After two weeks the regional director cleared our return to Egypt. We came back to martial law, a 7:00 pm to 6:00 am curfew - during which the streets of Cairo, a city of 20 million people, were hauntingly deserted - and to sporadic, diffuse and continuing violence in greater Cairo.

Most ROL development work in developing countries is characterized by less-extreme circumstances than the level of violent conflict that requires evacuation from a host country. However, many 21st-century developing countries are rife with social, political, economic, ethnic, gender, and religious tension, oppression, disagreement, and conflict. Many 21st-century developed countries are too.

But what distinguishes the two is that many developing countries have few or weak institutions for peacefully resolving disputes or changing oppressive structures. There is often minimal access to justice and fair elections, and limited or no freedom of expression, the press, and association. What rights exist are influenced by income and wealth. In the absence of institutions for resolving conflict peacefully, members of these societies may turn to “guns in the street” for resolving differences or seeking structural change.

Many 21st-century rule of law-development settings are a mixture of instability, endemic conflict, varying degrees of violence, and zero-sum competition for political power, and economic and social goods (including food and water). Indeed, tumultuous settings like the one described here in Egypt may point to some type of "new normal.”

B. Training and Teaching in ROL-Development: ROLI-Egypt

There is no broadly accepted definition of ROL. For our purposes, ROL means a legal system governed by a constitution and laws generated by representatives chosen through fair elections, in which the government is held accountable by enforcing constitutional and other rights through an independent judiciary. This requires skilled practitioners in courts, law schools and private and governmental law practice settings who are explicitly committed to the rule-of-law.

Developing and strengthening these practitioners, as well as constitutions, parliaments, elections, and legislation, among other things, is specifically the goal of ROL-development. There is no universal strategy, but all strategies have one universal purpose: strengthen global ROL. One rule of law-development strategy is to deliver ROL-training on-the-ground in host countries. Additional approaches include periodic training online, organizing conferences, advising on drafting constitutions and statutes, collaborative work with country bar associations, and bar leadership visits with legal system leaders in developing countries. The ABA, ROLI, and many other organizations, do this.

ROLI is a nongovernmental organization and international development program that, since it started more than 25 years ago, promotes justice, economic opportunity, and human dignity through the rule of law. It operates in 50 countries worldwide and currently targets six large thematic areas: (i) Governance and Justice System Strengthening, (ii) Human Rights and Access to Justice, (iii) Transition, Conflict Mitigation and Peacebuilding, (iv) Inclusive and Sustainable Development, (v) Internet Freedom, and (vi) Justice Works.

ROLI-Egypt reflects the vigorous nature of global ROL-development programs generally. It illustrates the programmatic structure of a typical overseas development organization and the struggle to do valuable short-term work while also seeking to institutionalize its long-term impact. The work that it does is vital, diverse, rich, and amazing.

1. Short-term Teaching

In late 2009, ROLI-Egypt secured its first five-year permit from the Egyptian government. It started operations with a multiyear, multimillion-dollar, USAID grant to create and deliver an “Innovation in Teaching and Training in the Egyptian Legal Education System” program. This program created and delivered short “CLE-type” practical skill-building courses to young Egyptian lawyers, created and managed national law school moot arbitration and legal writing competitions, and supported start-up law school clinics. This funding expired in 2016.

ROLI-Egypt added two more far-reaching USAID grant-funded programs in 2014-2015. One program focused on training Egyptian judges on contemporary skills, such as mediation, and on legal issues such as money laundering, trafficking, and numerous international treaties. The other program focused on training Egyptian prosecutors on contemporary skills such as forensic evidence gathering, use of DNA evidence, human trafficking, and interviewing witnesses, including in domestic violence cases. As of 2019, the funding for the prosecutor training was on-going.

2. Long-term Training: Training of Trainers

Admirably, ROLI-Egypt delivered more than critically important and valuable short-term practical skills training to individual judges, prosecutors, and lawyers. It also fortified the long-term sustainability of these skill-training programs by institutionalizing Interactive Teaching (IAT) methods in contemporary-skills training for Egyptian legal professionals. Strategically, it created and delivered IAT Training of Trainer (TOT) courses for the entire spectrum of the Egyptian legal system: lawyers, law professors, judges and prosecutors.

C. Transformation

ROLI-Egypt’s teaching and training work significantly changed and improved major sectors of the legal profession in Egypt. It transformed the perspectives, and skills, of thousands of individual Egyptian judges, prosecutors, law professors, young lawyers and law students. I saw thousands of light bulb moments as we opened the eyes of these legal professionals. ROLI-Egypt’s impact was powerful and pervasive.

Judges. ROLI-Egypt transformed judicial perspectives by teaching not only specific content but also how it fits into a larger systems-approach to legal sector change. Among other things, it taught Egyptian judges mediation techniques, the role mediation plays in increasing access to justice by resolving disputes more quickly than the typical six years waiting time for trial, and the institutional and societal value of creating court mediation systems. Additionally, ROLI-Egypt taught over one hundred judges in using IAT in teaching mediation and other topics to future generations of judges.

Prosecutors. Similarly, ROLI-Egypt transformed the perspectives and skills of thousands of public prosecutors on skills and knowledge relevant to their work, and created a cadre of trainers using IAT in the public prosecutorial training program.

Law Professors and Law Students. ROLI-Egypt also worked with law professors and law students in a majority of Egypt’s twelve major public law schools. For example, ROLI-Egypt created top-tier annual national law school competitions for moot arbitration and legal writing, and helped begin student family-law clinics. This included training hundreds of law professors on how to start and continue these programs at their schools. These programs reached thousands of Egyptian law students and law professors.

Young Lawyers. Similarly, in CLE-type classes, ROLI-Egypt trained thousands of young new law school graduates and early-career practitioners in the practical legal skills of client interviewing, legal analysis, legal writing, contract drafting, oral advocacy, negotiation, and arbitration. It trained Egyptian lawyers, and interested judges and prosecutors, to teach these classes in Arabic using IAT. Many of these trainees went on to make further contributions to Egypt as adjunct professors in other law teaching settings.

Institutional Development. Further, ROLI-Egypt generated the emergence of an Egyptian-led legal-skills training "industry" in Egypt. Before ROLI-Egypt started delivering CLE-type classes in 2010, there were no other organizations doing this type of training. By 2017, numerous Egyptian-founded organizations were doing this.

Quantitative Impact. Beyond the remarkable qualitative impact described above, the sheer volume of ROLI-Egypt’s impact is equally impressive. To conservatively estimate it, ROLI-Egypt offered at least 350 classes to an average of 25-50 judicial, prosecutorial, lawyer, law professor and law student trainees in each class. At six hours per class for each class, that totals more than 52,000 classroom hours of training.

Additionally, ROLI-Egypt actively recruited female young-lawyers for attendance at its CLEs, ultimately reaching an average classroom composition of 39% women. Further, it actively recruited experienced female lawyers and administrative judges for IAT-TOT training and service in leadership positions as CLE Instructors, reaching a composition of 21% women Instructors. These were cutting-edge “gender statistics” in patriarchal Egypt at that time.

D. Conclusion

Some say that the rule-of-law movement is failing, as they see the growth of authoritarianism, dictatorship, and terrorism in many corners of the world. But the fact is that even within such regimes and settings, there are those who yearn for democratic institutions and rule of law. As the Egyptian example here shows, there is much that can be accomplished to set the foundations for rule of law in autocratic environments when people strive to make a difference.

What rule of law work accomplishes in such constrained settings may not be the stuff of great novels or epic movies, but it can be the stuff of important stories and valuable achievements. This Egyptian story is one clear example. Here is the same story told more poetically:

One day, a beachcomber came upon a large expanse of fish stranded in small pools of water as a result of a receding tide. This extended as far as the eye could see. The beachcomber knew these fish would die before the tide came back in. So, she urgently set to work, throwing as many fish as possible out into the deeper water where they could survive. Before the returning tide drove her back, she saved many hundreds of fish. But she didn’t save them all. Perhaps she failed to make a significant difference at the macro-level of all the fish stranded for miles on the beach. But she made a dramatic difference in the concrete lives of each of the fish she did reach with the resources she had.