The War on Egypt’s Human Rights Defenders

In his annual report before the latest session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein criticized the flagrant human rights violations in Egypt, particularly the trials of dozens of political activists and human rights advocates. Angered by the report, the Egyptian government reduced its diplomatic representation in the official delegation at the Human Rights Council session. The Egyptian government has been unabashed in its violations of freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. It considers the imprisonment of human rights advocates an internal affair, and no individual or agency has the right to criticize the country accordingly, whether an Egyptian citizen or the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Egypt’s fraught relationship with civil society reached a peak in June 2013, when an Egyptian court sentenced forty-three Egyptian, American, and German NGO workers to one to five years in prison. The rationale behind the verdict in the ‘Foreign Funding Trial,’ as it came to be known, betrayed a hostility towards civil society organizations that has shown no signs of abating in the years since. The most recent incident to make headlines is the arrest of human rights defender Ahmed Samih, who heads both Radio Horeytna and the NGO, the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and anti-Violence Studies. Following a raid on the radio station, where police questioned employees about their political affiliations, Samih was detained overnight. He was released on 5,000 Egyptian pounds bail and faces charges of “establishing a radio station and broadcasting materials on the Internet without permission.” His arrest came days before reports of a new cybercrime law that is currently awaiting President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s approval.

The current regime is targeting human rights advocates using the media, legislation, and security tactics. The media and press, whether state-run or privately owned, have launched a vicious war to discredit human rights advocates, labeling them traitors, and accusing them of spying for Western countries and working for the Muslim Brotherhood. These are the same human rights voices who were vocal critics of former President Mohamed Morsi, and exposed human rights abuses under his rule.

Human rights workers, who have been making regular media appearances since the Mubarak-era, are now almost entirely absent from the scene. Due to their families’ concerns for their safety, amid a sustained media campaign against human rights defenders, several were forced to tell their families they had quit their jobs. Other families, influenced by accusations of hatred and treason against human rights advocates, have become suspicious of the work of their relatives.

Human Rights Defenders and the Protest Law

Authorities are using a set of repressive laws and legal procedures to punish human rights advocates. First and foremost is the Protest Law, which has been used to punish a number of prominent human rights defenders. Yara Sallam, Transitional Justice Officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights Sanaa Seif, a member of the No to Military Trials Movement, and Alaa Abdel-Fattah have each been sentenced to two, three, and five years in prison respectively. The head of the Rights Defenders Program at the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, Hend Nafea, was among over 200 sentenced in absentia to life in prison, in the so-called Cabinet clashes case.

On the eve of the January 2011 anniversary uprising, security forces used force to break up a peaceful march, and killed Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, a human rights advocate. While a police officer has been charged with Sabbagh’s killing, Azza Soliman, a human rights defender, has gone from witness to defendant in a related case, after she gave her eyewitness testimony to the prosecution. Commenting, Soliman said: “This only happens in authoritarian police states like Egypt.”

From Rights Advocate to Terrorist


Egypt’s new Terrorist Entities law uses exceptionally vague language that can easily be applied to human rights advocates and peaceful political opponents. For example, the law criminalizes “calling, by any means, for laws to be revoked,” which could be applied to human rights advocates who demand an end to the NGO or protest laws. In these situations, they risk being prosecuted as terrorists.

In October 2014, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi also amended Article 78 of the Penal Code under the pretext of eliminating sources of funding for terrorism. The amendment signified “a turning point in the relationship between the state and civil society. It places a sword over the heads of not only civil society actors, but also anyone engaging in public action, including political parties, trade unions, civil society, or the community” – as described by Ziad Bahaa-Eldin, who served as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of International Cooperation in the first government formed by the regime of July 3, 2013.

The regime is using the law to stifle the public sphere and ensnare human rights advocates within a complex web of oppressive laws, hostile to the values of democracy and human rights.

A Precarious Position for Egypt’s NGOs

Over six months ago, everyone was awaiting November 10, 2014—the deadline set by the Ministry of Social Solidarity for NGOs to change their status and register with the ministry, according to the current law. It was expected that the offices of some organizations would be raided by security forces, and leaders of the human rights movement would be prosecuted. The fact that November 10 passed without any of these expectations materializing does not mean they may not happen in the future. The government is still able to raid organizations headquarters, and bring activists to trial without warning. Independent human rights organizations realized this reality and adopted various strategies to cope with the potential risks.

Independent human rights organizations have realized the impending danger they face, and since last summer, have taken a variety of measures, including legal training for their employees and restructuring their programs. They also began to pay attention to the importance of providing human rights advocates with digital security in their online and mobile communications. Threats against human rights advocates have prompted some to leave the country and take up temporary residency abroad.

The crisis facing independent human rights organizations has also affected their funding sources, undoubtedly taking a toll on their activities and overall strength. A number of funding organizations are now wary of funding Egyptian organizations, fearing the confiscation of their resources if the government shuts down and liquidates these organizations.

In the face of a restrictive NGO law that violates international standards for freedom of association, organizations have adopted different strategies for their survival. Some have established branches outside Egypt, and moved certain programs and primary activities to other countries. Others registered their activities in accordance with the flawed law, while simultaneously announcing that they would continue working to end the law, and replace it with a democratic one. There are also those who have decided not to register for the time being, and have instead expanded their activities and opened additional offices.

Some thought that November 10 would be Armageddon for the human rights movement in Egypt. However, in recent days, the independent human rights movement has continued to criticize the violations committed by the Egyptian government—issuing statements of condemnation on allegations of torture, sectarian, and academic violence, among other matters. They have also not stayed silent when their own have been targeted by authorities.

While the West is preoccupied with a new global war on terror, it appears to have prioritized security over rights, a policy no different from the Egyptian regime and its Gulf supporters. The apathy of Western governments and domestic disdain for human rights defenders shaped by the media has barely borne witness to the unprecedented pressure on human rights organizations. Religious hardliners and authoritarian governments both discredit human rights advocates as non-believers or traitors. Meanwhile, the frail democratic political parties are unable to provide the necessary support to civil society. The imminent danger for human rights advocates in Egypt is, perhaps, not only that they are facing a despotic authority hostile to the human rights system, but also that they are alone in this fight, lacking support at home and abroad.

Ragab Saad is a human rights researcher. 

Image: Photo: Reuters/Yom al-Sabaa