Civil Society Facing Unprecedented Threat in Egypt


by Alison Glick

Attacks on NGOs, journalists and other civil society actors are at an all-time high in Egypt. A new report paints a bleak picture of their future. 

The Egyptian government threatening civil society organizations (CSO) is nothing new. Practically since such organizations emerged in Egypt, the authorities have used a variety of intimidation tactics to curtail their work and effectiveness on issues ranging from economic justice to women’s equality to human rights. Despite such efforts, civil society flourished in Egypt: Before the January 2011 revolt against the Mubarak regime, over 26,000 officially registered non-governmental organizations existed in Egypt, along with hundreds of others not registered with the government.

But since the July 2013 coup that brought Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power, the situation for civil society in Egypt has deteriorated radically. Under Threat: Egypt’s Systematic Campaign against NGOs, a new report by the Project on Middle East Democracy, details a sophisticated and methodical attack on non-governmental organizations by the Sisi government that, for the first time, seriously threatens their continued existence. 

A repression strategy evolves

Given their history and strength, Egyptian CSOs were poised to play a critical role in the transition to a democratic society after the fall of Mubarak.  Instead, their role in rebuilding Egyptian society based on democratic accountability and a rights-based agenda was thwarted by the successive governments that ruled after 2011. The current Sisi government adopted the most aggressive moves against CSOs – particularly those focused on political and human rights.

But Sisi hasn’t simply picked up where his predecessors left off, according to the report. He has incorporated lessons learned by the 2011 crackdown on NGOs that garnered significant international attention and precipitated a virtually unprecedented crisis in U.S.-Egypt relations. Sisi has adopted a more sophisticated strategy, utilizing a combination of tactics that includes administrative constraint, financial pressure, public defamation and outright attacks. In essence, the Egyptian President is moving to effectively eliminate civil society in a way that does not attract too much international scrutiny.

Building on the excessive legal restrictions and registration requirements used in the past, the Sisi government proposed a new law in 2014 that gives control over registration to a “Coordinating Committee” comprised of intelligence and other government officials, along with state-selected civil society representatives. The prominent role of security agencies in regulating NGOs in Egypt highlights the prism through which the state views such organizations. As the report makes clear, “Registration may be refused on a number of grounds, including vague proscriptions against groups that ‘threaten national unity’ or ‘violate public order or morality.’” (p. 4) Indeed, the head of NGO administration in the Egyptian government declared, “Egypt’s national security is more important than any rights group in this country.” (p.5)

The government’s use of national security concerns to control NGOs has severely impacted their funding. Stating that its intent is merely ensuring transparency and combating “foreign plots,” the government since 2002 must authorize contributions from abroad and even from some Egyptian sources. But such approval often is slow in coming or never comes at all.   Since only an outright denial can be challenged in court, leaving NGOs in legal limbo works to the government’s advantage. The 2014 law gives the Coordinating Committee power to deny foreign funding requests without explanation, and restricts domestic fundraising activities by requiring a state permit. Nearly every organization interviewed for the report said it had experienced “extreme difficulties” securing foreign funding approval.

In September the government ratcheted up the pressure on NGOs, again intertwining national security rationales with opaque legalities. Article 78 of the penal code provides for a life sentence and huge fines for an individual requesting or receiving funds from a foreign country or a foreign or local private organization with the intent of harming “national interests” or performing “acts that breach Egypt’s independence, unity, or territorial integrity.” (p.8) While Egyptian officials claim that the law applies only to “terrorist activities,” civil society actors, wary of reprisals and trying to navigate in a society where the state’s actions have gone largely unchecked, still feel threatened.

More direct intervention from the government comes in the form of overseeing day-to-day activities like electing board members and monitoring conferences in which Egyptian NGOs participate. In addition, stoking public hostility in the media by accusing organizations of acting against the country’s interest or as foreign agents has had a negative impact: Many civil society members have been threatened by Egyptian citizens during public activities. Raids, arrests, and physical violence still occur, including against international organizations and individuals, even if lessons were learned from the 2011 experience. And laws continue to be promulgated that criminalize activities as vaguely defined as “jeopardizing national unity.”

Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, commenting on the report’s findings, said that the United States needs to change the approach to the Egyptian regime that emphasizes “striking a balance” among security concerns, stability, and promoting democratic rights. This sends a mixed signal to Egypt about how firmly the U.S. opposes the government’s moves against CSOs. She added that human rights abuses only fuel radicalization, and that instead of seeing civil society as a threat, the government should view it as an ally in the fight against extremism.

There is one curious observation made in the report that deservers note.  In the introduction author Todd Ruffner writes, “As momentum builds in Washington toward ‘normalizing’ U.S. relations with the Egyptian state – essentially returning to the Mubarak-era policy of overlooking domestic repression – it is important to closely examine the threats facing the NGO community and civil society writ large. The Sisi government’s campaign against civil society is but one important indicator that puts into question Egypt’s reliability as an ally.” In fact, it was Mubarak’s close military and security cooperation and participation in activities such as the prisoner rendition program that made him such a reliable ally in the eyes of Washington, despite those involved being essentially the same forces responsible for domestic repression. Many things may disqualify a state from being considered a reliable U.S. ally – human rights violations is rarely one of them. This point was underscored yesterday when President Obama personally informed Sisi of the resumption of arms shipments and military aid to Egypt.

The difference between Mubarak’s modus operandi and that of the Sisi can be summed up in one anecdote relayed by Dunne: Mubarak didn’t like NGOs but wanted them to survive, if for no other reason than as evidence of his benevolent rule. Sisi, on the other hand, doesn’t want NGOs to survive. Indeed, if the situation in Egypt continues on its current path, there’s a real possibility that they won’t.

Alison Glick is International Program Officer at the Government Accountability Project and GAP’s liaison to WIN.

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