Police state Egypt: NGOs under attack
On 29 November, the Egyptian parliament - without debate or dialogue - hastily passed a new NGO law that was widely met with criticism from a number of political parties and charitable organisations concerned that the bill would threaten civil society groups.
The 89-article draft essentially criminalises work or research that harms "national security", "national unity", "public order" or "public morals" without narrowly defining what these are. Such ambiguity allows authorities to file charges against almost any group. It erodes the right to assemble and associate as well as independence from state interference, adding many restrictions in a flagrant violation of the constitution and the international conventions signed by Egypt.
Besides that, it stipulates that an organisation's work would "agree with the state's plan, development needs and priorities".
"This is the worst of all NGO bills I've seen in the past years, it's another declaration of war against civil society," said Mohammed Zaree, head of the Egypt programme at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS). "It coincides with the government's intent to close down public space."
Not only does the new draft heavily restrict the services provided by development organisations and charities, but it puts their work and funding under the full control of government authorities, including key security agencies.
"This law basically puts civil society under the hands of the government and security agencies, which is unacceptable in terms of their freedom of association and freedom to operate independently," asserted Nadine Haddad, Egypt senior campaigner at Amnesty International. "We call it a 'death warrant' for rights groups in Egypt."
|This is the worst of all NGO bills I've seen in the past years, it's another declaration of war against civil society.
- Mohammed Zaree, CIHRS
Under the law, any work and cooperation between international NGOs and local associations must first be approved by the government. Groups are also required to apply to the regulatory agency for permission to receive foreign funding. Further, the national authority - a new supervisory body mainly made up of security personnel - will monitor and regulate the operations and funds of civil organisations.
Tough penalties are prescribed with fines of between LE50,000 ($2,800) and LE1 million ($55,600) - and one to five-year prison sentences - for cooperating with a foreign organisation in civil society work without a permit, or conducting or participating in field research or opinion polls without prior consent.
In a letter and legal memorandum published by CIHRS in early December, 22 NGOs, four political parties and 19 public figures advocating freedoms called on President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi to use his constitutional authority to veto the law and send it back to parliament for substantial changes - in line with the Egyptian constitution and international law.
The draft is even more restrictive than the one proposed by the government in 2014, and again worse than the draft presented by Sisi's cabinet in September, which did not set prison sentences for violating the law.
The new law regulating civic associations falls against the backdrop of an ongoing crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs since 2011. It has dramatically increased under Sisi's rule with regular accusations of international conspiracy and vilification by the state-run media.
Following the military-backed ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt has seen wide sweeping crushing of all kind of opposition targeting members of the Muslim Brotherhood but also liberal activists, human rights advocates, journalists, youth, charity workers and civil society altogether.
An unprecedented crackdown of such large scale has not been witnessed before.
|Since 2013, with the arrival of Sisi, civil organisations have faced the most serious attack in Egypt's modern history.
- Ahmed Benchemsi, HRW
Zaree explained that in former dictator Hosni Mubarak's time, the space for civil society was highly restricted. However, there was a margin of freedom and Sisi's government is seeking to erode even this little margin.
"Since 2013, with the arrival of Sisi, civil organisations have faced the most serious attack in Egypt's modern history," said Ahmed Benchemsi, communications and advocacy director of the MENA division at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
"This government has gone out of its way to suppress any form of dissent in an accelerated trend of silencing civil society voices."
In the past months, repression against human rights organisations and persecution of rights defenders have come in the form of a wide range of punitive measures. These unclude travel bans, the freezing of bank accounts, summons for NGO staff or directors to interrogation, and closure orders.
Egypt's war on NGOs escalated in the 17 September asset freeze order against three rights centres (CIHRS, the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and the Egyptian Centre on the Right to Education) as well as the personal funds of five leading human rights lawyers including Hossam Bahgat, founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), Gamal Eid, founder of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) and CIHRS founder Bahey el-Din Hassan.
The verdict came as part of Case 173 of 2011, known as the NGOs' foreign funding case, which incriminates 37 NGOs on charges of "receiving illegal funds from abroad to harm national security and destabilise the country's unity". The first part of the investigation led to sentencing of 43 foreign NGO staff to between one and five years imprisonment in 2013.
This was along with the closure of several foreign groups which included US-based Freedom House and Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Then, the investigation was revived in 2014 to move on to targeting dozens of Egyptian NGOs. It was later frozen and reopened earlier this year to finally prosecute 12 civil society leaders.
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The first arrested in the investigation of foreign funding cases was advocate Azza Soliman, head of Lawyers for Justice and Peace (LJP), an organisation that provides legal assistance to Egyptian human rights defenders. On 7 December, she was arrested at her home in Cairo and then released on bail the same day pending investigations.
"I was accused of tax evasion though I produced proof of taxes paid up until end of 2015. Then I was accused of establishing an illegal entity that conducts activities similar to those of an NGO, and obtaining funding to harm state interests, but this is untrue," said the human rights defender. She was was still in shock saying that no evidence was provided during the interrogation to substantiate the charges.
On 14 December, Soliman's personal and LPJ's organisational bank accounts were frozen on the basis of her alleged involvement in the illegal foreign funding of NGOs, in confirmation of a judicial order given on 17 November. In the same judicial order, the laywer was also issued a travel ban.
It was on 19 November - as she was heading to Jordan from Cairo International airport to participate in a human rights training course - that the lawyer found out that she had been banned from traveling outside Egypt.
No official documents nor verbal clarifications as to why the order had been issued were given by either the bank or the airport authorities.
Soliman stressed that her case has no legal basis, and it was built to scare other rights defenders, in particular those doing feminist work. She is also founder of the Center for Women's Legal Assistance (CEWLA) which campaigns to promote gender equality.
"I feel injustice, there's no rule of law in this country," she said coughing. The bad health sector reflects her bitterness.
|The future of civil associations is scary but I will continue to fight for my rights.
- Azza Soliman, LJP
"This regime wants to be sure no-one makes [any] noise in Egypt but we're resilient, we stay and fight back," said the women's rights defender.
Last November, human rights lawyer Ahmed Ragheb and anti-torture activist Aida Seif al-Dawla, co-founder of the Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, were also banned from travelling.
Nadeem's bank account was frozen and the centre was forcibly shut down in April for allegedly "violating the law by shifting its focus from medical activities to human rights issues". However, it continued to document rights violations against detainees.
Likewise, CIHRS' Cairo office director Zaree is currently under travel ban in connection with case 173. CIHRS is among the three leading human rights NGOs whose assets were frozen by court order last September.
"There's no shred of evidence for this case, they're making up a lawsuit to punish civil society workers and eradicate the human rights movement," Zaree pointed out.
Egyptian authorities have imposed many of these travel bans and asset freezes as part of a larger campaign to suppress independent, critical voices inside the country. This is especially true of local organisations covering sensitive topics such as torture, enforced disappearances, honour crimes and women's rights. This is the case of Nazra For Feminist Studies, the Nadeem Centre and the CEWLA.
CIHRS foresaw an escalation in attacks on the NGO community back in 2014, when the ministry of social solidarity issued an ultimatum to civic associations to register under a repressive NGO law by 10 November 2014 or face legal consequences.
Further intimidation followed prompting several human rights advocates to leave the country and other groups to downsize their operations in Egypt. CIHRS decided to move its regional and international advocacy programmes to Tunisia as a precautionary decision.
Staff at CIHRS were right as the investigation in Case 173 - this time focusing on local independent groups in Egypt - continued in late 2014, just a month after the centre's activities in Cairo were downsized.
"The future of civil associations is scary but I will continue to fight for my rights," said Soliman. "I can't give up. If you want to stop me you will have to kill me."