Prominent young activists are in jail, stigmatization of human rights defenders has increased and further legal measures against human rights groups are expected. One could hardly be expected to believe that this is the same country that inspired and captivated worldwide attention with its 2011 revolution that expelled a dictator and seemed to propel popular movements around the globe. Yet this is Egypt today, where the authorities are bent on targeting the country’s indigenous human rights community. Egypt’s international partners should seriously take up this matter while renewing ties with Egypt.
Instead of addressing the widespread human rights abuses in Egypt since the military ousted Mohamed Morsi on July 3, 2014, Egyptian authorities have been steadily taking action to silence human rights defenders and obstruct their work. The persecution of prominent human rights defender Alaa Abd El Fattah is illustrative of the extent of reprisals against human rights defenders in Egypt. Abd El Fattah has been in prison since June 11, 2014 after he was sentenced to 15 years in prison in absentia for his campaign against a restrictive assembly law passed by the military-backed regime in November 2013. His sister Sanaa Seif is also in detention and awaiting trial on September 13 alongside other activists including Yara Sallam of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights – they all face trial for violating the assembly law. Alaa’s other sister is Mona Seif, a brave young human rights defender who, since 2011, has been leading a campaign calling for an end to the trial of civilians before military courts in Egypt. She was briefly detained in November 2013 for violating the Protest Law. On August 18, Abd El Fattah began a hunger strike to protest at his unfair trial and imprisonment.
Other imprisoned young activists, including well-known leaders of the January 25, 2011 revolution such as Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma, Mohamed Adel and Mahienour al-Masry have also gone on hunger strike. These people are among thousands of other young activists who saw the January 25, 2011 revolution against the repressive regime of former President Hosni Mubarak as an opportunity to build a new and democratic Egypt but who have been undermined by the undemocratic route taken by Egyptian political cliques over the past three and a half years. None of the succession of governments who have taken office since the fall of Mubarak have tolerated human rights activism, but since the military took over in July 2013, human rights defenders and political activists in general have been under attack more than at any other time in Egypt.
On July 18, 2014, Egypt’s Ministry of Social Solidarity gave human rights NGOs a period of 45 days to register under Association Law No.84/2002 or be prosecuted. Local and international NGOs and UN bodies have repeatedly denounced this law for its draconian restrictions on NGOs. But even this law apparently is insufficient for the government to control civil society, as a new restrictive association law is reportedly being prepared to control NGO activities and access to domestic and foreign funding. This new law will ban human rights defenders from forming any legal entities such as non-profit companies or law firms outside of the association law. Moreover, the stigmatization of human rights defenders has been routine in both public and private media, who accuse them of being traitors and spies. For the first time in Egypt, senior staff of Human Rights Watch, including its executive director, were denied entry to Egypt on August 11 and deported to prevent them from launching HRW’s report on the mass killing of Muslim Brotherhood protesters during the dispersal of the Rabea sit-in in August 2013. Over the past year, most international NGOs have closed their offices in Cairo, due to concern about the safety of their staff.
The future looks grim in Egypt and no major political shift is looming on the horizon. International and regional dynamics allow the regime to strengthen its manoeuvrability abroad. Regionally, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have provided generous political and financial support for Egypt as the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood. These countries have strong political interests in supporting President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt to undermine the Muslim Brotherhood’s presence in their countries and contain any potential unrest in the Gulf. It does not seem that Western powers will go far in challenging Egypt’s government, as they seem to prefer a ‘stable’ ally in the region given the turmoil that has been the norm over the last few years.
The challenge to Western actors at this stage is to maintain friendly ties with Egypt without sacrificing principles. Much more needs to be done by international actors to pressure Egypt to ease these tough measures against human rights defenders. Next October, Egypt’s human rights record will be under review at the UN Human Rights Council under the Universal Periodic Review. This is a valuable opportunity for states and global civil society to pressure Egypt to free detained activists and stop its clampdown on human rights defenders. The ongoing deep economic crisis forces Egypt’s government to continue to ask for external financial support and cooperation from international financial institutions. The US and EU can use this leverage to pressure the Egyptian regime to deliver better conditions for human rights defenders, drawing also on their influence in these international political and financial organizations.