The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, once said, “Civil society is the oxygen of democracy”. If this is the case, then Egypt’s democracy is slowly suffocating.
The human rights community in Egypt currently faces an unprecedented risk from what a number of rights activists feel is the worst assault in their history. In addition to the imposition of multiple travel bans, asset freezes and arrests of human rights defenders in the country, the Egyptian Government has also re-opened investigations from 2011 into NGOs they believe have committed the offence of receiving foreign funding.
Investigated, Bound and Gagged
The investigations into both local and foreign NGOs began after the former President Hosni Mubarak’s 30 year rule was ended by a popular uprising in 2011. The investigations were justified by officials at the time on the premise that they were going after organisations funded from abroad which they alleged were working to destabilise the country.
In addition to the re-opening of the investigations, human rights defenders working for these NGOs have been increasingly targeted. They have been summoned for questioning, regularly banned from travel and have had their passports confiscated and their personal and family assets frozen.
To make matters worse, the investigating Judge in the re-opened NGO case, Hesham Abdel Meguid, has issued a legal gagging order that prevents every media outlet in Egypt from publishing any material on the case, aside from official statements issuing from the court. This further compounds the problems Egyptian NGOs are suffering – not only are they being harassed, they are being gagged from talking about being harassed.
“…not only are they being harassed, they are being gagged from talking about being harassed.“
Egypt’s targeting of human rights defenders draws international criticism
The narrative from officials at every level from the President down towards NGOs is that there is a ‘fourth generation warfare’ against Egypt, in which outside forces are working to destabilise and ultimately destroy the country from the inside, using propaganda and foreign funded NGOs as their weapons of choice.
This crackdown against civil society at a national level continues also has an international dimension. At the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2016, Egypt proposed a raft of hostile amendments to a resolution that outlined measures ‘Protecting human rights defenders addressing economic, social and cultural rights’ that would have nullified the resolution by completely removing the term ‘Human Rights Defenders’. The amendments, which Egypt co-sponsored, were rejected..
In a statement issued on 11 April 2016 UN experts said “Egypt is failing to provide a safe and enabling environment for civil society in the country”. Egypt’s assault on civil society has also drawn criticism from the United States Secretary of State John Kerry, the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Federal Foreign Office in Germany, and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, to name a few. The criticism rightly highlights the benefits that a strong and free civil society brings, not least providing clear and invaluable information about the human rights situation from on the ground.
President Sisi’s missed opportunity: the role of NGO’s in the bigger picture
With regard to the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), local NGOs and human rights defenders are on the front line. They stand with those facing charges of blasphemy and insulting religion, with those from religious communities who are attacked and whose attackers enjoy impunity, and with those who are driven away from their home villages and land following extra-judicial reconciliation sessions.
“Civil society is slowly suffocating”
President Sisi has made a number of encouraging speeches towards Egypt’s Christian community and has encouraged a renewal of religious discourse across not just Egypt but the Islamic world. NGOs and human rights defenders would have been staunch allies in this important endeavour; however, at the moment they are preoccupied with fighting tides of cumbersome bureaucracy, fighting to have their assets unfrozen, fighting court battles or simply fighting for personal safety.
By CSW’s Egypt Desk Officer