To litigate or not litigate, that is the question

Heba Khalil, Nebraska Wesleyan University

An isolated island community in northern Cairo wakes up to bulldozers and police forces announcing that demolitions are about to start. Unaware of the threat of eviction, the islanders gather in front of their homes, placing their own bodies as barriers to the bulldozers. The islanders hold their ground for an entire day, witnessing the killing of a young neighbour, watching as some homes succumb to demolition, and chanting in the face of state forces as cannisters of tear gas blind everyone. As the demolition force retreats for the day, the islanders must make several decisions about how to defend their homes. As a sociologist and a human rights defender, I have worked in multiple contexts in the Middle East documenting anti-eviction movements and uncovering their social order and interactions with the state and the justice system. The urban poor in the Global South, and arguably everywhere, can build impressive movements to defend their livelihoods when threatened. As I conversed with activists from the island, I wanted to understand how they made decisions about organizing, representation, communication, protest, and whether to litigate. In past ethnographic research, I seem to have missed that critical moment when a decision was being made about whether to go to court. But is going to court really a decision? 

My ethnography of Al-Warraq paints a complicated picture of litigation in grassroots movements. As I show in my JLS article, Lawyers as infrastructures: mediations, blockages and new possibilities in grassroots movements (Vol 50, Issue 2, 2023), precarious lawyers have inhabited the subaltern community for decades, having failed to achieve the social mobility experienced by their predecessors in the legal profession. The rising precarity of professional lawyers in Egypt has resulted in lawyers standing shoulder to shoulder with their neighbours to defend their homes against eviction. Precarious lawyers now largely inhabit working class and poor neighbourhoods, as they have seen their salaries decline and their profession disrespected by the public. This puzzling dynamic raises fascinating questions about the shifting class structure and changing political subjectivities. Al-Warraq’s case highlights the relationship between lawyers and their own subaltern communities, and the ways in which precarious lawyers suddenly emerge as movement leaders. With the declining prestige of the legal profession in Egypt, community lawyers viewed movement leadership and successful litigation as a unique opportunity to gain the respectability and honour that they longed for. In a community meeting organized by elders to discuss the imminent threat of eviction, Al-Warraq’s lawyers announced that they were bringing a case to court to challenge the eviction order. Litigation, which started as lawyers’ contribution to the movement, suddenly became central to ordering the island’s mobilization. 

Even if not a clear decision, litigation is consequential to movements. And not necessarily in the ways we think it is. Globally, housing rights advocates have shown that access to legal counsel can make a big difference in stopping evictions or in guaranteeing fair compensations, including in the USA. In many contexts, communities mobilizingagainst forced evictions may or may not elect to go to court. Their decision will depend on many factors, including their access to affordable legal representation, the political context, their previous experience of resisting evictions, and their perception of the legal system, amongst other things. But what if the deal is already sealed by virtue of lawyers’ embeddedness within resisting communities? My article shows the unintended consequences that litigation can have on a community’s mobilization. While the islanders initially regarded access to legal counsel and a free court case as a point of strength, some activists started realizing the consequences of the court case later. Placing litigation at the heart of the community’s movement has necessarily brought lawyers to the forefront as movement leaders. As the legal experts, lawyers mapped the terrain of politics for their communities, and placed their court case at its core. When the community grieved the murder of a young activist by the police, the lawyers advised silence on the matter to ensure that any community reaction does not jeopardize the proceedings and outcomes of the court case. When neighbouring communities faced a similar threat of eviction and sought alliance with Al-Warraq, community lawyers advised against such relationships, once again citing concerns about the court case. Oftentimes, the lawyers were worried about how the media reported on the island, and how this portrayal would affect judges. Community lawyers worked hard to ensure that the islanders were not viewed as illegitimate squatters, especially by the judges, whom the lawyers viewed as subjective citizens easily swayed by the media (compare to Stina Bergman Blix’s post on (dis)passionate judging).  

My article on the community lawyers of Al-Warraq is part of ongoing discussions about litigation in grassroots movements. It shows how lawyers can forge important relations with communities of experts, the legal system, and the media that can be instrumental to movements. At the same time, it points to blockages that community lawyers create in the practice of politics. By mapping the realm of the possible, lawyers generated the infrastructures of resistance for Al-Warraq’s islanders, with new opportunities and multiple limitations. 

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