The IBA’s response to the war in Ukraine  

Rights groups under attack in Egypt

Emad Mekay

New draft legislation to regulate non-governmental organisations has been approved by the Egyptian Cabinet. Global Insight considers the implications for the rule of law and human rights in the country, as well as further afield.

On the eve of 3 July 2013, Western-funded activists cheered as US-trained General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi announced the removal of Egypt’s first ever elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) had clashed with the Morsi government over several issues, including its plans to monitor foreign funding. In reaction, many joined the opposition and rallied for his ousting through various media platforms, highlighting his incompetence and the need for change.

In the days that followed Morsi’s removal, some even volunteered to travel to Europe and elsewhere to convince suspicious observers that what happened was not a coup d’etat but a response to popular demand for greater rule of law, democracy and freedom. That marked the closest point – almost ever – in the relations between the country’s powerful military and human rights groups stationed there.

Change of heart

But on 17 September 2016, almost exactly three years later, with Sisi now Egypt’s uncontested President and strongman, the North Cairo Criminal Court upheld an unprecedented decision to freeze the assets of five leading human rights activists and NGOs on the grounds of receiving illicit foreign government funding. And this is just the beginning.

Case 173 involves the assets of 13 activists, lawyers and their family members, including the 11-year old daughter of one of the activists.

Among those targeted by the measure are many who publicly supported the military takeover: activist-turned-journalist, Hossam Bahgat; Director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, Gamal Eid; Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Bahey eldin Hassan; Director of the Center for the Right to Education, Abdel Hafez Tayel; and Hisham Mubarak Law Center Director, Mostafa Hassan.

The five human rights groups those individuals lead have also come under the power of the law. Moreover, some 12 activists have been barred from international travel pending further investigation. The regime’s list of charges includes allegations that a total of 37 NGOs have illegally received foreign funding.

Worse times ahead

And as if all that were not enough, those measures are only ‘provisional’, meaning that further criminal prosecution will start at anytime. When it does, activists may face penalties as severe as life sentences.

That’s why the September decision marked the lowest and most alarming point for relations between NGOs and the Cairo military rulers. The honeymoon period which followed the July 2013 upheaval has descended into a volatile affair.

Given Cairo’s influence in the region, Case 173 also bodes ill for other rights groups in and around the Middle East. Cairo now takes a pro-active role in pushing similar policies elsewhere, warning neighbouring Arab regimes that the foreign-funded activists’ goal is nothing short of toppling their rule.

There are many indicators that the combative Sisi government is out to use the law to bring down the curtain – perhaps for good – on ‘troublesome’ NGOs. After years of negative publicity, many activists do not enjoy wide public backing. There were no rallies or statements of support from within the country for those who’s assets were frozen, except by other NGOs. This is, in part, due to some human rights groups having danced gingerly around the crackdown on regime opponents back in 2013 and early 2014. Many NGO leaders had assumed that rallying to oust Morsi and siding with a military takeover would translate into liberal democracy, as well as permissive laws and regulations for receiving foreign funding. Some activists had even backed giving Sisi a sweeping ‘delegation power’ to combat terrorism; Sisi later used this authority to wipe out political opponents.

By the time Sisi started targeting rights groups, there were no independent political groups left to oppose his actions, and Sisi had already amassed enough power to be able to strangle NGO’s funding streams almost unchallenged. The Sisi government went to great lengths to file a lawsuit based on investigations and documents dating back to a 2011 probe into civil society organisations’ unlicensed receipt of foreign funds.

Egyptian journalist and human rights advocate Hossam Bahgat (pictured left) and human rights activist Gamal Eid (pictured right) are seen at a court in Cairo, 24 March 2016.

Cairo’s crackdown on rights groups is a major focus of local media, which is branding activists as ‘foreign agents’ and ‘traitors’. This couldn’t have been a more convenient charge for the Sisi government. Cairo is preparing for the making of painful economic decisions, such as cutting subsidies, increasing utility bills and slashing the value of the local currency. Fighting ‘the enemy’ in the form of rights groups that are seen to tarnish the country’s image overseas and plot secretly to puncture societal peace is a timely distraction of popular attention away from economic woes.

Internationally, Sisi scores well too. He has positioned himself before powerful governments in Europe and to the US – who are perhaps the only players who can influence him – as the new Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat, a political friend who is willing to take forward peace negotiations with Israel in new ways. He has also branded himself as the God-sent, ultimate fighter against Islamists in general and ‘West-hating’ Jihadists in particular.

Journalists and pundits close to the regime say the government is convinced that Western nations will consider human rights groups a small sacrifice for the larger benefit of fighting radical Islamists. Many point to how the West has so far tolerated Syrian President Bashar al-Asaad despite his human rights atrocities, simply because he has succeeded in portraying popular uprising against his rule as ‘terrorism’. Arguably, much of the initial international criticism has now subdued as a result.

Egyptian human rights groups did receive some international support. The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, EuroMed Rights and the Bar Human Rights Committee of England & Wales have roundly condemned the crackdown.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association Maina Kiai has drawn critical attention to Cairo with regard to the ongoing abuses. ‘The government seems to be systematically attacking civil society in an effort to silence its voice,’ he says. But that has had little impact. Without official pressure from those in positions of power in Washington and across Europe, Cairo has shown it can comfortably absorb such condemnations without ruffling many feathers.

John Vernon, Chair of the IBA’s Human Rights Law Committee, feels the bigger picture in Egypt is more alarming. ‘Raids by security forces on journalists’ offices, denial of travel visas, jailing of human rights defenders, beatings, harassment of protesters, constant interrogations, freezing of bank accounts, sexual abuse and torture are part of the government’s attempts to keep its civil population under strict control, specifically violating Article 75 of its Constitution,’ he says.

The government seems to be systematically attacking civil society in an effort to silence its voice

Maina Kiai
UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association

Vernon suggests a more assertive international role might help stem the tide. ‘The UN needs to step in under its Periodic Review process to make sure the rights of all Egyptians are being protected. Western countries should make it clear that this behavior is unacceptable and use diplomatic and trade resolutions at their disposal.’

At present, there are signs that Cairo’s military rulers feel more emboldened than ever. Citing ‘national security concerns’, they are going beyond Case 173. A new draft legislation to regulate NGOs has just been approved by Parliament. The law will be enacted once the Egyptian President ratifies it.

Critics say the bill retains ‘repressive provisions’ of the current NGO law, and adds new ones. Groups that rely on foreign money for their survival will no longer be able to tap into those funding streams.

NGO activities and foreign funding will be supervised by a government committee that includes security agency officers. It requires groups to go through a lengthy legal process of registration with the Ministry of Social Solidarity before they can even get in touch with foreign funders

Such conditions show how the odds in Egypt are stacked against rights groups, especially those truly committed to fundamental freedoms and the rule of law. President Sisi is bent on subduing their work, just as he did to his opponents – with their support – three years ago.

Without proper, calculated and serious intervention – in addition to the legal struggle – civil society groups are likely to face extremely testing times ahead. As Vernon states, ‘If El-Sisi is successful, then yes, this could be the end to Human Rights and the Rule of Law’ in Egypt.

Emad Mekay is a freelance journalist. He can be contacted at emekay@stanford.edu