Egypt Raises Stakes for Dissent with Life Sentence

Days after announcing his backing for the US-led regional alliance to fight the Islamic State of Syria and al-Sham (ISIS), President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued a legislative amendment that extends the penalty for receiving funds to commit acts that ‘harm national interests’ and ‘disturb public peace’ to a life sentence. The September 22 amendment is decried for its potential targeting of foreign funding for NGOs. The law however covers all forms of transactions, including local funding, using broad terminology that will allow authorities to extend its prosecution of dissent beyond the usual suspects.

The amendment defines the funding as “anyone who asked for himself or for others, or accepted or took, even through mediation, from a foreign country or those who work for its interest, from a person or an entity, or a local or an international organization, or any other entity that is not affiliated to or doesn’t work for a foreign country.” It previously only carried a punishment of “strict imprisonment.”

This could be applied on anyone. The amendment leaves the door open to the executive and judicial authorities to interpret the meaning of “committing something harmful to national interests of the state or impacts the independence of the state, its unity, or the safety of its lands, or the committing of hostile actions against Egypt, or disturbing its public peace and security.”

The law is unashamedly blunt in its intentional ambiguity. It even includes the catch-all phrase “other things” in the list of criminal transactions: “Cash, wired money, supplies, or equipment or arms or ammunition, or the equivalent, or other things.”

Transactions such as salaries to journalists, freelancers and fixers, and grants to artists can be criminalized if they are deemed a threat to national security—an accusation often leveled by officials against foreign journalists working in Egypt.

The expectation that this law could be applied on anyone in a bid to punish and silence dissent, be it local or foreign, is not a theoretical assumption. Similar phrases have been used in charges and court verdicts and by pro-state media and officials. Legal precedents have already been set including in court cases this year.

The judge in the Al Jazeera trial deemed the slew of irrelevant videos presented as evidence, an endangerment to “national unity,” explaining in his verdict that the defendants wanted to harm the state’s internal security. This was a case so flawed that the prosecutor’s only argument to link the video evidence with the charges was to say that showcasing footage of police crackdowns on protesters was proof of ill intentions. He then proceeded to link the defendants’ actions to international conspiracies on Egypt and the region. The judge concurred and handed them seven to ten year sentences, for, among other things, aiding a terrorist group.

Over the past year, “disrupting public peace and security” has become the rubberstamp phrase in charges against protesters. Court cases that include tens or even hundreds of defendants each often mix actions such as vandalizing property with grand accusations of conspiring to destabilize the country.

President Sisi endorses such trend through continuous warnings of conspiracies facing the country. Rights groups are often the first to be accused of working with foreign powers to destabilize the country and spread chaos by highlighting the state’s violations.

These baseless accusations mainly fuel the rumor mill. Yet, they made their way through Egypt’s judicial system through the issue of foreign funding. In May 2013, a Cairo court found forty-three staffers from five foreign organizations guilty of receiving foreign funds and operating illegally. Funding is “soft colonization” adopted by countries that aim to destabilize countries, the judge said in a detailed verdict. Foreign funding for civil society “took on new dimensions in an attempt to contain the revolution, to twist its path and direct it to serving its own interests and the interests of Israel,” he added. Prosecutors and local media threw around other accusations, including plans to divide Egypt, but that didn’t make it into the official charges.

Egypt’s civil society has been bracing for a harsher crackdown. Various iterations of the draft NGO law that emerged over the past three years aim mainly to stem the funding that keeps these organizations afloat. After repeated promises from the ministry of social solidarity that the approval of the NGO law would be left to an elected parliament, the presidency cut to the chase and amended the penal code instead. The long ignored law regulating (or restricting) civil society will also go into effect in November, after extending the first September deadline calling on NGOs to register with the ministry, or get shut down.

Until the state finalizes the NGO law, this amendment raises the stakes by an additional twenty years in prison, and an impossible fine of half a million Egyptian pounds. The state may not prosecute everyone, but can selectively target the most prominent and vocal rights groups. Many of these organizations help labor movements network and organize, provide legal aid to political detainees, and raise awareness about and lobby for minority rights. Research and documentation will also be affected. Accountability, already sorely lacking in Egypt, will be the victim of this amendment.

This latest move shouldn’t be dismissed as part of Egypt’s efforts in combating terrorism both at home or beyond its borders, despite the casualness with which “cash” is lumped together with “arms and ammunition,” in the amendment. The wording separates these criminalized transactions from terrorism by stating that in the case of an actual link to terrorism the punishment will reach the death sentence. Yet, the need for Egypt to take part in international efforts to fight regional terrorists groups will be the cover under which the regime will get away with what some rights activists describe as an unprecedented law among repressive nations.

Sarah El Sirgany is a nonresident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. She is a Cairo-based journalist and television producer, contributing to regional and international publications and networks including CNN, the New York Times, Al-Monitor and Mada Masr. 

Related Experts: Sarah El Sirgany