“That's when the government declared war against human rights groups,” said Mohammed Zaree, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies' (CIHRS) Egypt program. “An all-encompassing war,” he stressed, explaining that registration under the current law entails constraints on funding, enables the government to interfere in organisations' activities, and makes them vulnerable to harsh penalties.
Up until Abdel Fattah El-Sisi took office, only groups listed as civil society associations were required to register under the law. Many Egyptian human rights organisations were able to circumvent this problem by registering as law firms or civil companies. Now, implementation of the law has been expanded, requiring all entities engaged in “civic society activities” in Egypt to register, effectively stripping these groups of their independence.
Over the past two years, Egypt has been undergoing one of the most violent and repressive periods in its modern history. Since Mohammed Morsi's ouster in 2013, the military regime has been steadily regaining control of the country's institutions.
Tens of thousands of government critics have found themselves targets. Suspected members of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood are joined in jails across the country by secular activists, human rights advocates and members of the independent press.
Rights-focused independent civil society groups are more important now than ever to Egyptian society, especially in the face of a judiciary that has been described as showing “scant regard for any recognisable principles of justice”. And yet, although their independence is guaranteed in the constitution, it's unclear whether rights groups can continue their work unless they align themselves with the government. And one way to do that is by complying with the requirement that they register according to the 2002 Law on Associations.
Unfortunately for civil society groups, the situation might be getting worse in the near future. Sisi's government not only revived the law but introduced a stricter, more repressive draft version, one that includes a life sentence and a fine of no less than LE500,000 (approx. $US63,800) for those receiving foreign funding to “harm national interests”. The draft law is yet to be passed, but the proposed amendments suggest that the NGO sector has reason to be concerned about its future.
Khaled Sultan, the head of NGO administration at Egypt's Ministry of Social Solidarity, has used the real threat of terrorism in the region to justify further restricting the climate in which NGOs operate. “Egypt's national security is more important than any rights group in this country,” he said. More than 400 NGOs have been shut down in 2015 alone.
Of course, the concept that state security and respect for human rights cannot go hand-in-hand is not unique to Egypt. Many violations have been committed across the region in the name of national security, often with wide support from citizens who appear convinced by the government's arguments.
“Rights groups in Egypt these days don’t look to the future... We don’t think a year ahead, or even six months ahead. All we think about is our next contingency plan."
Mohammed Zaree, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies’ Egypt program
As the November 2014 deadline to register loomed closer, NGOs in Egypt were feeling the pressure. Should they yield to the law and surrender their independence? Halt their activities for a while and lay low? Move their operations elsewhere? Refuse to comply and risk being shut down without notice — Or worse, face imprisonment?
“Rights groups in Egypt these days don't look to the future,” said Zaree. “We don't think strategically, we don't think a year ahead, or even six months ahead. All we think about is our next contingency plan.”
By the end of 2014, the deadline had come and gone without any decisive action from the government. The Ministry of Social Solidarity announced that it would be investigating local organisations not in compliance with the law on a case-by-case basis. It is possible that the unwanted international attention had deterred the government from taking action. Nevertheless, many NGOs had already taken precautionary measures. Some had complied with the law, others had employees working from home, fearing a repeat of the raids on NGO offices that took place in December 2011, and others still had ceased their activities altogether.
Authorization and registration are not the only tools the government has at its disposal in its efforts to silence and control civil society. What finally prompted CIHRS to move its regional and international programmes abroad in December wasn't so much the registration deadline as it was harassment of both its employees and its regional partners and guests.
In a statement explaining their reasons, the institute said that Egypt had often barred its guests, mostly regional rights advocates and UN officials, from entering the country. Some guests were even subjected to airport harassment and lengthy interrogations. As a result, the quality and reach of CIHRS' regional advocacy was suffering.
The institute's new regional office is now set up in Tunisia, where an NGO law that largely complies with international standards was passed in September 2011.
In Egypt, NGOs continue to work in a hostile environment. The state and its supporters in the media have been targeting NGOs in the public sphere. A recent article named some of Egypt's most prominent rights groups as complicit in the furthering of foreign agendas meant to harm Egypt's stability. It accused CIHRS' executive director of being allied with “terrorists”, and claimed the organisation exists to “obstruct” the state's stability.
Zaree has dismissed the accusations, saying, “the State knows we have no connections with the Muslim Brotherhood or have foreign agendas. It just doesn't want to be held accountable for its actions.” Still, he admits that the accusations take a psychological toll on those working in civil society. When an individual is named, his or her personal safety can be compromised as well.
While rights-based NGOs in Egypt have always faced challenges in their work, advocates still managed to sustain a vibrant civil society, monitoring and documenting government violations even during Mubarak's rule. After the 2011 revolution, there were high hopes that civil society would take a more active role in the transition to democracy. Instead, nowadays the very survival of independent rights groups is in danger.