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Egypt's civil society slowly being strangled despite claims of democratising

A poster show a placard with the faces of Egypt's ousted President Hosni Mubarak (L) and President Abdelfattah el-Sisi
A poster show a placard with the faces of Egypt's ousted President Hosni Mubarak (L) and President Abdelfattah el-Sisi

REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

This statement was originally published on cihrs.org on 4 May 2015.

The undersigned organizations utterly reject and condemn the increasingly aggressive actions taken by the Egyptian government and the investigating bodies against civil society, especially rights groups.

We believe the goal of these measures is to slowly strangle the work of rights groups in part by pursuing legal actions based on repressive laws. The ongoing harassment of civil society in Egypt contradicts all claims that the country is democratizing, a process in which these organizations are a basic building block.

Legal and judicial tools based on the repressive Associations Law (Law 84/2002) are being deployed to suppress civil society. As a case in point, the intimidation of rights groups began when on July 18, 2014, the Ministry of Social Solidarity informed civic associations that they must register under the Associations Law by November 10 or face legal consequences.

Further intimidation came as human rights defenders were threatened with prison sentences and at times death, leading several of the most prominent defenders to leave the country and prompting other groups to downsize their operations. The government then employed new tactics against rights groups, devoting its efforts to eliminating all critical voices or those that offered an alternate vision of governance.

Recently, the investigations into the receipt of foreign funding were reopened with the goal of eliminating remaining civil society organizations. With three members of the Egyptian Democracy Academy (EDA) banned from travel since December, the investigating judge imposed additional travel bans on other leaders of the institution. He also ordered the appointment of a technical committee from the Ministry of Social Solidarity, to be tasked with examining the institute's files to determine whether it operates as a civic association without being registered under Law 84/2002, and to examine other institute documents related to funding. This suggests that the government is taking even more serious steps than those taken in December 2011 against international NGOs, which ended in prison sentences of up to five years for staff members of the targeted organizations.

Previously, Egyptian rights groups had asked the Supreme Judicial Council to examine every aspect of this case, starting with how the investigating judges were selected, as well as how information, whether erroneous, correct, or decontextualized, was leaked to the media from ostensibly confidential investigation files. These leaks were employed to defame defendants in the case with various allegations, including conspiring to destabilize the country, which were attributed to judicial sources or investigating magistrates. The leaks also sought to inflame popular sentiment against human rights groups, to punish them for their role in exposing human rights crimes.

With the recent travel bans and reopening of old investigations, the Ministry of Social Solidarity's threats of July 2014 have come to fruition. Numerous civic associations objected to the ministry's statement at the time, which required organizations to register under a repressive Associations Law that the ministry itself has several times pledged to amend, or face dissolution or the suspension of their operations.

It should be noted that the Egyptian Democratic Academy (EDA) complied with the ministry's requirement and registered its activities under the law, yet it continued to be harassed. This leads us to believe that the ministry's statement signaled the beginning of a campaign to shut down civil society groups, and we expect the campaign to extend to several other registered and unregistered rights organizations.

Indeed, the Ministry of Social Solidarity has refused to register several organizations that chose to comply with its requirements. It denied the application of the Foundation for Victims of Abduction and Involuntary Disappearance without citing cause, leading the foundation to appeal the decision with the Administrative Court, where the case is still pending.

The ministry has also failed to respond to the application of the Egyptian Movement for Rights and Freedoms, although 60 days have passed, which is impeding the movement's activities. According to the one of the founder, the refusal to approve the group's application is due to unspecified objections from security bodies.

The ministry similarly denied the application of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession, asking the founders to change the name of the organization, on the grounds that the group will operate in Egypt, not “the Arab world.” The ministry also objected to the name because, according to it, the judiciary is already independent under the Egyptian constitution. The ministry proposed several other names to the founders that would enable them to register the organization.

Other actions have been taken as well. Existing organizations are being squeezed in terms of the work they can do, and human rights defenders are facing judicial and security harassment. In early April 2015, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms attempted to hold a conference on the future of justice in Egypt. After several hotels refused to host the conference, one hotel finally agreed only to cancel two days before the conference after the security authorities objected.

On April 4, a force from the Artistic Works Investigations Unit, under the auspices of the Interior Ministry, accompanied by a force from the Sayyida Zeinab police station, raided the office of Radio Horytna, arresting Ahmed Samih, the director of the station as well as the Andalus Center for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies. During the raid, the force questioned Samih about how the radio station forms its new content and whether it is affiliated with any political groups or forces. Although Samih presented documentation to refute the allegations against him, the prosecution detained him until the next day pending findings of the police investigation. Released on bail of LE5,000, Samih faces five charges, including broadcasting audiovisual content without a permit from the competent bodies and running a business without a permit.

The case of rights defender Azza Suleiman is still pending as well. Suleiman was a witness to the police killing of human rights defender Shaimaa al-Sabbagh on January 24, 2015. Having been coincidentally near the demonstration when security forces attempted to disperse it with force, Suleiman went voluntarily to the prosecution to make a statement. She was subsequently charged with participating in an unlicensed demonstration along with other charges.

These and other incidents expose the falsity of the government's claim to support civil society. While it demands that civic associations register under a repressive law, it then denies their applications or stalls, at times even taking action against organizations that are legally registered, a status that can be used to justify intervention in their internal affairs and activities and to prohibit their staff from travel. At the same time, the ministry has refused all overtures by civil society to discuss amending the current NGO law, despite receiving invitations to do so, while making press statements that it will accept the invitation under the aegis of the National Council for Human Rights.

The undersigned organizations believe that these escalations clearly expose the government's desire to rid Egypt of rights work, by eliminating rights groups or harassing their staff, who are public actors resisting the ongoing attempts to shut down public space. A new NGO law and dialogue are not on the agenda of the government, which prefers to harass and prosecute those who defend human rights. This harassment continues even as rights organizations must double their efforts to respond to the unprecedented quality and quantity of human rights abuses in the current period.

Government legal actions against rights groups and defenders have relied on investigations marred by numerous irregularities as well as on repressive laws that wholly disregard the UN recommendations accepted by Egypt during its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in March. The government's repeated violations of rights and liberties also violate all guarantees for these rights enshrined in the 2014 constitution.

Troubled by the latest steps taken in the foreign funding case, the government's attempt to apply its November 10 registration deadline, legal actions taken against rights organizations, and the harassment of human rights defenders, the undersigned organizations calls on the Egyptian government to:

1. Lift the travel bans imposed on human rights defenders with the Egyptian Democracy Academy and any others who may be the target of undeclared bans. We also ask that the charges against activists and human rights defenders, such as Azza Suleiman and Ahmed Samih, be dropped.

2. Close the foreign funding case, which is merely a cover for a vicious political-security campaign against rights groups, begun in 2011 and based on possible administrative infractions that should have been resolved outside the courts and without security-directed smear campaigns.

3. Comply with the provisions of the constitution, especially with Article 75 on the freedom of association and Article 93, which dictates government compliance with international human rights conventions ratified by Egypt, giving them the force of national legislation.

4. Comply with the pledges made when accepting the UPR recommendations in March 2015 and cease the harassment and prosecution of civil society organizations and human rights defenders.



The way to rectify the deteriorating political and economic conditions in the country is not through political and security harassment of organizations that seek to strengthen democracy and the rule of law in Egypt. The failure of the security apparatus to address the declining security situation cannot be laid at the feet of organizations that advocate tolerance, respect for the other, and an end to corruption and tyranny.

Forgoing the harassment and antagonism of human rights groups and civil society is the only way forward, if the state is serious about resolving its current crises. Resolving the crisis of these groups requires the executive authority and the incoming parliament to objectively consider the draft law proposed by rights groups to liberate civic action and ensure the independence of NGOs, within a framework that guarantees the adoption of international standards operating in democracies. These standards are obligatory for the Egyptian authorities pursuant to Egypt's ratification of basic international human rights conventions, and they offer rules that ensure transparency and accountability for any violations proven against legally operating civic associations.

Signed Organizations:

1. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
2. Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression
3. Arab Network for Human Rights Information
4. Hesham Mobarak Law Center
5. Egyptian Commission for rights and freedoms
6. Cairo Centerfor Development CCD
7. Center for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance
8. El-Nadeem Centre for the rehabilitation of victims of violence and torture
9. Legal Association for the support of Family and Human rights
10. Masryoon Against Religious Discrimination
11. Nazra for Feminist Studies
12. Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies
13. The Human Right Association for the Assistance of the Prisoners
14. Arab Penal Reform Organization
15. Alhaqanya Center for Law and Legal profession
16. Egyptian Democratic Academy (EDA)
17. The Egyptian Center for Public Policy Studies
18. Habi Center for Environmental Rights
19. The Human Rights Legal Assistance Group
20. The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights