Government must end relentless attempt to “eradicate”  independent civil society

The Egyptian government will convene an online  panel discussion with United Nations member states on the 4th of May  to discuss its national legal framework concerning civil society, including , Law n. 149 of 2019 on Civic Associations and its executive regulations, often referred to as “the NGO law.”  As independent Egyptian human rights organizations, we express our concern that this event appears to be organized in a manner to conceal the reality faced by independent civil society within Egypt, and the government’s sustained and systematic attempts to eradicate independent NGOs within the country

The current NGO law, while still not in compliance with Egypt’s constitution and international human rights obligations, does represent a relatively less restrictive framework compared to other authoritarian legislation enacted under president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.  However, a technical focus on this particular law without reference to the wider policies and actions of the Egyptian government towards independent civil society fails to provide an accurate assessment of the situation for civil society in Egypt.  Such an approach obscures that fact that  the latest NGO law forms a small part of an extensive and  ever-growing arsenal of draconian legislation and repressive policies that are employed in a manner intended to  do away with almost all independent civil society actors and activities within Egypt.

Moreover, a narrow technical focus on the NGO law and its particular articles also obscures the fact that attacks and repressive measures against civil society in Egypt are often carried out outside of any consistent legal justification or framework  and in a context in which the rule of law is not respected by government authorities.  President Sisi himself has repeatedly expressed contempt for Egypt’s constitution, considering it “written with good intentions” but not relevant to policy formation.  On more than one occasion, Sisi has also declared the non-applicability of universal human rights in Egypt, despite constitutional and treaty-based obligations of the government  to adhere to  international human rights conventions within national legislation.

Indeed, it is neither Egypt’s constitution nor its international obligations that govern the country and its civil society.  Instead, the  unilateral will of the President and the heads of the security apparatus almost always  supersede and negate the rule of law with impunity.  Egypt’s judiciary, through both direct and indirect interference by the executive branch of the government, is no longer capable of exerting independence within this area and many others.

Within this context, President Sisi and security bodies controlled by the President, have  sought to eliminate civil society with an onslaught of repressive laws and mafia-inspired illegal practices over the last seven years.  These practices are intended to prevent the formation and operation of independent associations, and have fundamentally crippled independent  civil society within the country.  The latest NGO law and its executive regulations do nothing to offset this reality, and, in many ways, only add to the existential threat facing independent civil society in the country.

The reality is that almost all organizations and individuals who attempt to expose or ensure accountability for human rights violations in Egypt are imprisoned, tortured or otherwise subjected to a wide range of threats and attacks.

For example, rights lawyer Ibrahim Metwally  founder and coordinator of the League for the Families of the Disappeared, was arrested in 2017 while traveling to Geneva as an invitee to a meeting of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced Disappearance. Metwally was not arrested for violating the NGO law, but for engaging in legitimate human rights activity perceived by the Egyptian government as critical of its human rights crimes.  Mr. Metwally’s  arrest had no legitimate basis in law, and he remains arbitrarily imprisoned.  Human rights lawyer Mohamed El-Baqer, director of the Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms, has been detained since September 2020. He was arrested while performing his professional obligations as a defense lawyer- attending an investigation session of his client, human rights defender Alaa Abdel Fattah. In utter disregard for any law, Ibrahim Ezz El-Din, a researcher at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, was kidnapped and forcibly disappeared for over 165 days and tortured with electric shocks during a state security interrogation about his human rights activities.  Human rights defender Gamal Eid, the executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), was criminally assaulted in the street, and his car stolen, while another ANHRI colleague of Eid had his car vandalized and stolen, as part of an extra-legal campaign of intimidation and thuggery devoid of any consideration for the rule of law.

Many other rights defenders and members of civil society are facing charges of “joining a terrorist group” and “spreading false news,”; charges that do not fall under the NGO law. Bahey eldin Hassan, the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) and a human rights defender, is facing a 15-year prison sentence issued by one of the terrorism circuit courts. Hassan is not accused of violating the NGO law, but is charged with spreading false news through his Twitter account related to his human rights positions, along with the engagement of CIHRS with the United Nations.

More than 31 other human rights defenders have faced government retaliation through travel bans and asset freezes, and are at risk of sentences of up to fifty years imprisonment stemming from spurious charges in Case no. 173 of 2011, known as the Foreign Funding Case. The charges against them that hold the highest penalties are those in violation of Article 78 of the Penal Code, which President Sisi amended in September 2014.

Recent attempts by the Egyptian government to highlight “improvements” in its NGO law comes after heavy criticism of Egypt’s human rights record in a joint international declaration, signed by 32 states and delivered by Finland at the 46th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2021, and is likely intended to “whitewash” its image before the international community. It is imperative that the international community and UN experts take into consideration the wider context of brutal repression facing civil society in any discussion with the Egyptian government on the NGO law and its implementation.  Ignoring this reality will only encourage Egypt to continue its long-term goal to “eradicate” all independent civil society within the country.

Signatories,

 

  1. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
  2. Committee for Justice
  3. Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms
  4. Egyptian Front for Human Rights
  5. Freedom Initiative
  6. Nadeem Center

 

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