Like any advertiser seeking the largest outreach the Social Solidarity Ministry placed its announcement in the weekend Friday edition of the Arabic Al-Ahram. The notification urged “unlicensed” civil society “entities” to adjust their legal status in accordance with the law organising NGO activity within 45 days. Failure to comply would leave them subject to legal investigation with the risk of being dissolved.
The message couldn’t have been more alarming for the intended recipients, the human rights community, which saw the announcement as a veiled threat not only against its activities but to its very existence.
Though the storm has been brewing for three years signs of the state’s growing intolerance of rights defenders became more evident following the military’s takeover in July when state allied media launched a campaign accusing human rights organisations of tarnishing Egypt’s image, fomenting unrest and acting as agents for western donors.
The Social Solidarity ministry’s ultimatum comes after a draft law to regulate NGOs was presented by the ministry to human rights groups last month. The draft law allows, for the first time, for the involvement of security agencies, alongside the ministry, in regulating and vetoing NGO activity. It imposes penalties of up to 15 years in prison and hefty fines.
Described by Human Rights Watch as the “death knell” for the independence of NGOs, the law was slammed by 29 rights groups in a statement last week as a “flagrant breach of the constitution and Egypt’s international obligations”. The statement was largely ignored by the government.
It was understood the law would be presented to parliament once it is elected, leading rights groups to assume they still had time to lobby for better regulations. The Social Solidarity Ministry’s ultimatum has pulled the carpet from beneath that assumption, leading the human rights community to anticipate the worst.
“It is a declaration of war against rights groups,” says Mohamed Zarei, a researcher with the Cairo Institute for Human Rights. “Rights groups occupy the last remaining space from which to criticise government violations, but they are also legally very vulnerable.”
The absence of a viable opposition following the military-backed government’s clampdown on dissent since last summer has seen human rights groups emerge as the most vocal critics of state oppression. Their reports regularly challenge the official narrative that denies any violations exist.
To evade a restrictive law issued over a decade ago, the majority of influential human rights groups in Egypt are not registered as NGOs. They must operate as law firms and research centres, among other things, to maintain any legal status.
Law 84/2002, promulgated under the regime of Hosni Mubarak, specified penalties of up to one year in prison for NGOs that failed to register but was never fully implemented. Most rights organizations continued to work largely outside government control. Human Rights Watch operated a Cairo office for years without a legal license. It was finally closed earlier this year.
It’s unclear why the Social Solidarity Ministry, which is proposing a new NGO draft law, is pushing rights groups to register under law 84/2002. Amr Abdelrahman, head of the civil liberties unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), believes the ultimatum might be a “prelude to the crackdown” on human rights defenders which he and others have expected for months.
“If we don’t comply it gives the authorities the premise to escalate.”
The nature of the anticipated crackdown is far from clear. “It could,” says Abdelrahman, “range from fabricating charges to defaming the community, which has a morally damaging effect and that’s more difficult to deal with.”
Officials have offered little in the way of reassurance. They argue that civil society organizations continue to operate outside the law.
“These groups continue to receive foreign funding but aren’t registered with the ministry and this can’t go on,” says Khaled Sultan, head of NGO administration at the Social Solidarity Ministry. He shrugged off rights groups’ rejection of the recently proposed legislation as inconsequential. Rights groups, he insists, are only a “fraction” of Egypt’s large NGO community.
“The others didn’t say the draft law is restrictive. Rights groups just don’t want an NGO law at all,” he said.
The tone of such comments reflects a shift in the Social Solidarity Ministry’s approach. Under outgoing minister Ahmed El-Borai meetings were held with representatives of the human rights and pro-democracy community over a then NGO draft law.
When they expressed concern over the draft they were invited to rewrite it as part of a joint committee with the ministry. The draft law approved by rights groups was finally presented to the Hazem El-Beblawi cabinet. Borai was replaced in February’s cabinet reshuffle by current minister Ghada Wali who withdrew the legislation only to propose a new law four months later.
The overt involvement of security agencies as condoned in the latest draft law means that rights groups who report on violations by the security apparatus will also be accountable to it.
According to Sultan this is necessary. “Egypt’s national security is more important than any rights group in this country,” he said.
Over the last year extensive restrictions have been imposed on the freedom of association.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been classified as a terrorist organization. The April 6 Movement, one of the key youth groups in the 2011 uprising, has been banned. The offices of the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights - whose lawyers have been documenting the post revolution death toll and independently counting the number of prisoners and arrests since Mohamed Morsi’s removal in July – have been raided twice by security forces.
A law that effectively bans and criminalises protests, swiftly enforced last November, provides legal cover for the government’s policy of sweeping arrests and silencing dissent. Today a majority of the activists most associated with the 2011 uprising are languishing behind bars.
Rights groups who regularly make noise about this, “can’t expect to be tolerated” argues Gamal Eid who heads the Arab Network for the Human Rights Information. “What the really wants is for independent human rights organizations to become charities or philanthropic institutions.”
But rights defenders don’t appear to be backing down. The past decade has seen the growth and solidification of the three-decade-old human rights community and “a lot of very important work has been achieved, not just around political detainees but also in the area of economic and social rights,” says EIPR’s Abdelrahman.
“Hundreds in this community refuse to relinquish those achievements. It’s not easy to give it up. Egypt needs these institutions badly.”
*This story was first published at Ahram Weekly.