In late 2011, Egyptian authorities raided 17 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working on democracy and rights issues. Two years later, an Egyptian court ordered the closure of several international NGOs and handed down sentences to the defendants on charges of operating illegally in the country. The second part of the case, referred to as Case No. 173 (2011), which involves a number of Egyptian NGOs, rights workers, and lawyers, was never closed. According to a leaked 2011 report 37 organizations are currently at risk of being prosecuted, based on recommendations from a government fact-finding committee tasked with investigating foreign funding received by civil society organizations.
Signs of a looming investigation into local NGOs can be traced back to 2014, when The Ministry of Social Solidarity issued a deadline requiring all civil society organizations to register with the government or face legal action. Since then, employees at Egyptian NGOs and prominent activists have been banned from travel, organizations have been forced to move their programming out of Egypt, and rights groups have been visited and their staff questioned by government investigators. Staff members of NGOs have also been threatened and arrested. Amid this closing space for rights groups, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights warned in June 2015 that the government had launched investigations against NGOs as part of Case No. 173.
In recent weeks, several NGOs and prominent rights workers have been banned from travel and summoned for questioning, although none of the NGO staff that have been summoned so far have been formally charged.
On February 17, the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence received a closure order by police officers directed by the Ministry of Health. The Ministry said the closure was issued because the center had changed its operations and activities from what it was licensed to do without informing the ministry. In response to the order, Nadeem filed a request to the Health Ministry to halt the shutdown decision. Days later, the organization issued a statement responding to and refuting the reasons cited by the Health Ministry for the closure. The Center’s Director Aida Seif al-Dawla has said the closure order handed down by the ministry is a political move.
On March 3, Director of United Group and rights defender Negad al-Borai was interrogated by prosecutors for allegedly establishing an unlicensed entity and deliberately spreading false information with the purpose of harming the public order and interest. United Group’s accountant was also summoned on March 15. His interrogation was also linked to his proposal of anti-torture legislation.
On March 13-15, two employees from the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) were asked to appear before the investigating judges for questioning. The employees summoned are responsible for the finances of the organization.
Three staff members from Nazra for Feminist Studies and the organization’s founder and director Mozn Hassan were also summoned for interrogation between March 13-15. Hassan said that the three other Nazra employees who were summoned are not considered defendants in the case. “During their interrogation, I was always referred to as a defendant,” she stated.
On March 17, a judicial committee tasked with reviewing the foreign funding investigation ordered the freezing of assets of four human rights activists and their families. Two of the activists were identified as Hossam Bahgat, founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), and Gamal Eid, the Executive Director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. Bahgat, Eid, and the two others who weren’t identified are being investigated on charges of illegally receiving $1.5 million in foreign funds. In February, Baghat and Eid discovered they were banned from traveling when they attempted to board flights out of Cairo International Airport.
Eid and Bahgat said that they found out about the committee’s decision to freeze their assets from media reports. Judicial sources also revealed that similar moves would be taken with others rights activists, but stressed that the measures were “precautionary,” pending probes.
On March 19, the Cairo Criminal Court adjourned a session on the judicial committee’s order to freeze the assets of the four activists because all of the defendants failed to appear in court. Defense lawyers said their clients were not present because they had not been officially notified of the case.
On March 24, the court reconvened, only to announce that it would again postpone its decision to to April 20. During the session, Eid and Bahgat both appeared before the judge to face questioning related to the funding and activities of their respective organizations. Bahgat and Eid both commented on the unusual practice of facing a travel ban and asset freeze before being summoned for questioning.
Media Gag Order
The presiding judge on the committee investigating the case, Judge Hisham Abdel Meguid, issued a gag order on media coverage of the case on March 22. The ban prohibits any type of media outlet from publishing anything on the case other than statements issued by the presiding judges until investigations conclude. Al-Shorouk reported that the order was issued following a meeting between President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, members of the Cabinet and the head of General Intelligence. According to Presidential Spokesperson Alaa Youssef, Sisi emphasized the need to improve Egypt’s image abroad in the meeting.
Responses from Defendants: Bahgat and Eid
Hossam Bahgat and Gamal Eid have insisted they are innocent of the allegations made against them. Eid told Mada Masr following the most recent adjournment of the case on March 24, that “it was clear that the case is political.” During the session, Eid had been asked about the nature of funds he and his wife, whose assets are also under scrutiny, had received for their work. He explained that his wife is a foreigner, working independently with her own income, and that neither of their accounts reflected transfers of money from overseas.
For his part, Bahgat stressed that the Initiative Company for Legal Consultancy, the legal name for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, provides research on legal, social, and public policy matters and presents recommendations to the government without taking a political stance. He explained that his organization is not subject to the NGO law because it is officially registered with the investments authority. He demanded that the judge revoke the asset freeze unless clear charges are put forth by the judicial committee. Baghat explained that he and Eid “faced asset freezes and travel bans before being officially summoned.”
Responses from Egyptian Activists and Organizations
A number of Egyptian rights activists and organizations have said the re-opened investigation marks a major attack on NGOs. On March 21, 17 Egyptian rights organizations issued a joint statement condemning the reopening of the investigation, calling it an “orchestrated, escalating assault” on civil society. The statement said the signatories expect additional measures by the state to “silence the sole remaining voice of tens of thousands of victims of human rights abuses.” The statement also called for greater freedoms and reforms, saying that “instead of silencing and repressing victims’ voices with flawed legal procedures, the government would do better to realize the serious shortcomings in the management of the country and initiate reforms.”
A separate statement from EIPR said that activists and NGOs in the human rights community in Egypt are at “unprecedented risk” as part of a broader plan to “prosecute the entire independent human rights movement.” EIPR Associate Director Heba Morayef said she expects the asset freeze order on Bahgat to be extended to the entire organization, which could force its closure.
On March 26, over 15 human rights organizations signed a statement of solidarity with Nazra for Feminist Studies and called on the National Council for Human Rights to attend the questioning of Nazra Director Mozn Hassan, who was summoned for further investigations on March 29. On March 27, 125 academics also announced their support for Hassan in a letter and called on their colleagues “to stand with Nazra for Feminist Studies and Mozn Hassan against this and all forms of harassment and crackdown on civil society organizations in Egypt.”
— Global Fund forWomen (@GlobalFundWomen) March 26, 2016
On March 18, US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed deep concern about the human rights situation in Egypt, including the recent NGO investigation. Kerry said the investigation “comes against a wider backdrop of arrests and intimidation of the political opposition, journalists, activists and others.” He warned that “restrictions on the space for civil society activity will produce neither stability nor security” and urged the Egyptian government to work to ease restrictions on freedom of expression and association.
Former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, and US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, also tweeted about the investigations.
— Samantha Power (@AmbassadorPower) March 22, 2016
— Madeleine Albright (@madeleine) March 25, 2016
In a statement on March 22, the German Foreign Office expressed concern for “repression” of human rights organizations in Egypt, saying that Germany has found recent moves by the Egyptian government to be in violation of both international human rights standards and the Egyptian constitution. “We are following the latest travel bans, bank account freezes, and investigations against human rights activists and organizations in Egypt with great concern,” the statement read.
Minister for North Africa Tobias Ellwood said on March 22 he was “deeply concerned by growing restrictions on civil society in Egypt.” He said restrictions on Egyptian rights organizations runs counter to Egypt’s 2014 constitution and undermines confidence in Egypt’s political transition.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein expressed “grave concern” over the closure of human rights and civil society organizations in Egypt. He urged Egypt to drop the investigation, stating that “the Egyptian authorities must stop all prosecutions targeting legitimate human rights activities and in particular terminate the cases against Hossam Bahgat and Gamal Eid, who by international standards have clearly not committed any crime.”
— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) March 23, 2016
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement after meeting with CIHRS Director Bahey Eldin Hassan in which he stressed the importance of “allowing human rights defenders and civil society in general, as well as the media, to work without undue restrictions.” He also expressed support “for the important work of Egyptian human rights organizations in promoting and implementing universal principles and standards of human rights.” Hassan also met with US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power and Assistant UN Secretary General for Political Affairs Tayé-Brook Zerihoun. A CIHRS statement following the meetings said they indicated “the magnitude of the international community’s concern about the ongoing failure of the Egyptian government to respect its national and international commitments to respect the human rights of Egyptians.”
— CIHRS (@CIHRS_Alerts) March 6, 2016
A statement by the European Union called the investigation, which it said targeted “EU partners who are crucial in the democratic development of Egypt” a “serious concern.” Separately, a motion for a resolution filed by members of the European Parliament on the case of murdered Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni called on the European External Action Service to “develop urgently a strategy” to respond to the NGO investigation, which they said “threatens among the most prominent civil society actors in the country.”
International human rights organizations
Fifteen US, European, and international human rights organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement on March 23 expressing concern and calling on the Egyptian authorities to withdraw all travel bans and asset freezes and lift the gag order on the investigation. They also called on the United Nations Human Rights Council to condemn the crackdown on NGOs in Egypt and demand that the authorities take measures to improve human rights in Egypt. In a separate statement, Amnesty called the freezing of activists assets arbitrary, punitive, and the authorities’ “latest tool to eradicate civil society.”
Response by the Egyptian government
To the United States
In response to US Secretary of State Kerry’s statement on March 18, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said that the human rights situation in Egypt is the responsibility of the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people. He also noted that Egypt engages in transparent dialogue with the United States and other countries on human rights issues. An official statement from the Ministry accused foreign officials of “using distorted generalizations to accuse the Egyptian government of stifling the freedom of civil society organizations in Egypt in their work, without providing any tangible evidence to support these claims.”
A number of Egyptian MPs also criticized Kerry’s remarks. Deputy Speaker of Egypt’s Parliament Soliman Wahdan issued a statement criticizing “American intervention in Egypt’s internal affairs.” Wahdan, a member of the Wafd Party, said, “We are aware that it has become a tradition for American officials to resort to seizing some separate cases, like the current one related to investigating NGOs, as an excuse to issue judgments about the situation of human rights in Egypt in general, and meddle with our internal affairs.”
The Conservatives Party, which has six MPs in parliament, called Kerry’s remarks “a flagrant interference with the internal affairs of Egypt” and “a violation of the basic rules of diplomacy and international law.” The Party also stressed its support for the investigations in Case No. 172 (2002), saying, “This should be a transparent investigation to make sure that the money donated to NGOs is not spent on fake projects or spent in violation of this country’s legal and constitutional rules.”
Independent MP Mostafa Bakri demanded that the NGO law be amended to impose a strict ban on all sources of foreign funding. “We have to close this door because NGOs with foreign agendas are like a dagger in the back of this nation,” he said. Independent MP Amin Masou called for a parliamentary hearing session to respond to American and European statements regarding Egypt’s internal affairs.
In contrast, Chairman of the liberal Reform and Development Party Anwar El-Sadat accused Egyptian authorities of mounting a campaign against human rights activists and civil society organizations. “This regime should realize that arbitrary measures against human rights NGOs will cause the loss of many friends in America and the West,” he said. Sadat said he supports an independent review of NGO activities in Egypt, but noted that he is “totally against imposing any kind of bans on these NGOs.”
To the European Union
A number of other Egyptian officials responded to the European Parliament’s resolution on Egypt. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said the resolution was not reflective of the reality on the ground in Egypt and was founded on baseless allegations.
Egypt’s Ambassador to the United Nations Amr Ramadan said that it was “difficult” to listen to the EU and European countries criticize Egypt’s human rights record without also looking at Europe’s mishandling of the current refugee crisis. In an interview with Ana Masr, he echoed Shoukry’s remarks, saying that Egypt does not need advice from anyone.
Meanwhile, Deptuty Speaker Wahdan said a number of Egyptian members of parliament would visit Brussels in April to respond to the resolution. “We have a long and strong relationship with the European Union, and we hope that we will settle our differences through dialogue,” Wahdan said. The head of the delegation MP Ahmed Said said it will include 13 MPs. “MPs are also currently thoroughly reviewing the EU Parliament’s statement about human rights in Egypt and we are preparing responses to it. We found out that a large part of this statement was based on incorrect and inaccurate information,” he said. “I received instructions from Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Al that we should resolve our differences with the EU Parliament via dialogue rather than confrontation,” Said added.
Elissa Miller is a Program Assistant at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter @elissafmiller. Margaret Suter is an intern at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter @MAminishakib