It’s Time the Egyptian Government Made Peace with Human Rights

A group of Egyptian human rights organizations issued a press statement November 18, inviting the ministry of social solidarity to participate in a serious and transparent dialogue to discuss the future of civil society in Egypt. The invitation comes a week after the expiration of the ministry’s deadline set for all non-governmental entities engaging in “civic work” to take steps to “legalize their status.” This essentially meant that organizations not registered under the 84/2002 Law on Associations and Foundations, the notoriously restrictive “NGO law” as it is commonly known, were expected to do so if they are to continue to operate.

The Mubarak-era NGO Law has, ironically, been used as a tool to restrict freedom of association far more often in the three years following his 2011 ouster. Efforts by civil society groups to propose an alternative to NGO law, that would guarantee the transparent operation of NGOs while maintaining autonomy from the state, have been ignored and rejected by successive post-Mubarak governments. Contrary to what is generally conveyed by Egyptian media, this is not the first time civil society, especially rights groups, have reached out to government officials to iron out differences.

While in the weeks leading to the deadline, NGOs felt like the end of civil society in Egypt was near, they were able to let out a hesitant sigh of relief on November 10. Vague statements made by Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali seemed to imply that some organizations operating legally under different forms,  would be allowed to continue to work. Most human rights organizations in Egypt are registered as law firms, non-profit companies, or limited-liability for-profit companies, and the minister’s statements are most likely pointing towards these entities. The minister has repeatedly claimed that the government does not wish to exclude any civil society groups and that only those who have something to hide should be concerned, implying that those who refuse to cooperate are probably “misusing funds” or engaging in “illegal work.” 

Legitimate rights groups however have every reason to be skeptical of the government’s new ‘friendly’ approach. The ministry has sent many a mixed signal since the deadline expired, the most recent of which is a social media campaign launched to pressure civil society organizations to reveal their sources of funding. Of even more concern are statements made by the ministry of interior that they are waiting on word from the social solidarity ministry to shut down organizations that do not comply with the NGO law, and that security apparatuses are hard at work monitoring those that receive unauthorized funding. The latter statements seem more in tune with the current political climate. The state continues to intensify its crackdown on dissent, and in the past months a number of international and local organizations have either suspended or shut down their operations amidst a growing hostility, fueled by the media, towards foreign organizations working in Egypt, or those receiving foreign funding. According to Amnesty International, at least three major NGO heads have received threatening phone calls from security officials.

It is unclear, with all the conflicting news, how the government will move forward now that its ultimatum has not been met. Repeated warnings have prompted a small number of organizations, both local and international, to register under the NGO law, but many that have fought for years for their right to work independently of government and security control will continue to do so. While many expected a severe crackdown, initial more optimistic readings may indicate that the government decided to adopt a more lenient approach towards civil society in response to criticisms it received during Egypt’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the Human Rights Council in Geneva less than a week prior to the NGO deadline, and that it sees that it has more to lose with an outright crackdown. Alternatively, the government may simply lack a clear idea of how it will follow through with the ultimatum and is buying extra time. 

Following Egypt’s second UPR cycle covering the last four years since its first review in 2010, a draft report was issued including 300 recommendations. A quick skim through the draft report is sufficient to understand the magnitude of concern expressed by many states for the future of human rights and civil society in Egypt. This concern was further reinforced by the decision by leading local rights organizations not to participate in the UPR as a result of what they described as direct threats to their work. As NGOs are increasingly acknowledged as essential actors in the UPR and other UN mechanisms, this move was bound to sound alarm bells.

The Egyptian delegation, headed by Minister of Transitional Justice Ibrahim al-Heneidy, however seemed oblivious to the negative impact the insistence to impose the current NGO law is having on the country’s human rights record. The delegation repeatedly showcased the 2014 constitution as proof of Egypt’s human rights advancements, but failed to see how the NGO Law was in clear violation of one of its provisions. Coverage of the UPR by state-controlled media described what the delegation believed to be a victory for Egypt in the area of human rights. One headline read “Egypt Wins Human Rights Battle in Geneva,” which appears to be the most accurate reflection of how the state sees itself in relation to human rights. Despite a commitment to respecting and fulfilling rights and freedoms by signing on to international treaties, the government seems to believe it is at war with human rights. 

The Egyptian government will be considering the recommendations in the final report before responding to them in March 2015 during the council’s next session. Perhaps the time is right for the government to make amends with civil society groups expressing a genuine desire to engage with it in constructive dialogue that will not only advance human rights, but help Egypt address some of the real threats it faces.

Amani Massoud is a human rights educator and health activist.

Image: Photo: Activists, accused of working for unlicensed non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and receiving illegal foreign funds, stand in a cage during the opening of their trial in Cairo March 8, 2012. Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)