A number of Western countries, as well as the UN, have voiced concern in recent days over the arrest last week of three Egyptian human rights activists working at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). International human rights organisations — including London-based Amnesty International and New York-based Human Rights Watch — also joined the chorus asking that the three EIPR detainees be released.
In response to the reactions Egypt’s Foreign Ministry issued two statements rejecting any attempts to influence investigations conducted by the prosecutor-general into the activities of Egyptian citizens.
Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ahmed Hafez expressed his “regret” at the lack of respect the Western reactions showed to Egyptian laws as they defended an entity “operating illegally in the civil society field”.
“EIPR is registered as a company and performs activities in violation of the provisions of NGO Law 149/2019,” said Hafez. He noted that companies working in any field in Egypt must do so in accordance with the law, or else be held accountable.
Hafez also stressed the importance of respecting national sovereignty and the non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, in accordance with international law.
Mohamed Bashir, EIPR’s executive director, was arrested on 15 November. Three days later, Karim Ennarah, the head of EIPR’s criminal justice department, was also arrested. The following day Gasser Abdel-Razek, EIPR’s director, was detained.
The charges they face include working illegally in the area of human rights, membership of a terrorist group, publishing false news on the Internet, and funding terrorism.
Dalia Ziada, chief of the Cairo-based Centre for Free Democracy Studies, said in a TV interview on Monday that EIPR, which was established by activist Hossam Bahgat 17 years ago, has always insisted on working outside Egypt’s NGO legislation and refuses any supervision of its funding by the Ministry of Social Solidarity. EIPR, she added, follows “foreign politicised agendas rather than national ones”.
Ziada argues that some international organisations are attempting to leverage the human rights situation in Egypt following Biden’s victory to “pile pressure on Cairo”, said Ziada.
Essam Khalil, leader of the Free Egyptians Party, issued a statement on Monday insisting that the political community in Egypt fully supports the activities of civil society and human rights organisations operating in the country provided they do so within the remit of the law.
“They must abide by legislation that regulates their activities as long as they are operating in Egypt,” he said.
Khalil noted that the vast majority of civil society and human rights organisations operating in Egypt do so lawfully. “Unfortunately a minority, particularly those that obtain money from foreign sources, like to introduce themselves to foreign diplomats as reliable and credible sources and issue politicised reports on the human rights situation in Egypt, or else work as a front for terrorist and outlawed organisations.”
The arrests came following a 3 November meeting between EIPR officials and Western ambassadors in Cairo. The ambassadors of 13 Western countries, including France, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands, are reported to have attended the meeting on the situation of human rights in Egypt.
In a statement issued on 21 November Hafez said: “With regards to reported reactions and false accusations circulating in the media and social media forums about the arrest of a number of employees at EIPR, all of them made before the conclusion of the investigations conducted by Egyptian judicial authorities, Egypt rejects any attempt to falsely influence the investigations that the prosecution conducts with Egyptian citizens who face charges.”
Western reactions began with France expressing “deep concern” over EIPR Bashir’s arrest. Paris said it maintains a “frank, exacting dialogue” with Egypt on human rights issues. The EU, UN, UK, and Germany all issued similar statements, calling for the release of the EIPR staff.
Anthony Blinken, named by US President-elect Joe Biden on Monday as the new US secretary of state, also spoke out against the arrest of EIPR’s senior officials. Blinken issued a tweet this week insisting that “meeting with foreign diplomats is not a crime nor is peacefully advocating for human rights.” He also re-tweeted a comment by the US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, saying “we are deeply concerned about the detention of employees of EIPR which works to strengthen and protect rights and freedoms in Egypt, and that all people should be free to express their beliefs and advocate peacefully.”
“Civil society work must be regulated by the relevant and applicable laws, and those who violate them must be held accountable… no one is exempt or immune from the law,” said Hafez.
Commentators say the arrests come at a crucial time for Egypt, with the incoming US administration expected to focus more on human rights issues than its predecessor.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was the first Arab leader to congratulate Biden on his election.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly