Chronicle of a civil society, chronicle of a death foretold

These days, as I wait for the premeditated legal blow against the civil society organization I founded, I find it difficult not to think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Chronicle of a Death Foretold.”

Marquez’s novel tells the story of the last hours of Santiago Nasar, the central protagonist. At first glance, the novel seems quite ordinary. At the end of a normal evening after staying up late in his city, Santiago walks down the road, meets friends and sees some of his neighbors. Everything is normal, except for one detail: Everyone knows that Santiago will be killed by his brother Vicario. Everyone but Santiago, who walks happily in his city and has no idea that he has already become a ghost for everyone.

I have never thought that my life bears a resemblance to that of Santiago Nasar except recently, when I started thinking about my trial hearing on July 17. On that day, a Cairo court will look into the lawsuit brought by some of the most skilled in lies and fabrication. The court will decide whether or not to bury some non-governmental organizations alive in Egypt.

In the session, the judge will rule on whether or not state institutions cloaked in borrowed legality will have their wishes fulfilled by obtaining closure decisions, travel bans, confiscation of funds and criminal persecutions against these human rights organizations. This ruling will be tantamount to the Egyptian government issuing a death penalty, not only on the six organizations that are currently under attack, but on all NGOs in the country.

We are not the condemned victim in Marquez’s novel, at least not until now. In fact, he is not a person, but something more important – he’s Egyptian civil society. Everyone knows what’s about to happen. However, knowledge alone is not enough to prevent the now-expected fate. If the execution is to take place, it will happen in broad daylight, at the hands of state employees in full view of everyone, including local and international public opinion, media and journalists, local and international observers.

This execution has been on the state’s to-do list for months. For months, the state has been sharpening its knives. The main charge against us is that we harm Egypt’s reputation by publishing information about human rights violations and that we receive funding from abroad. The charge itself is ridiculous, for it comes from the same regime that receives billions annually in aid from the United States, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Even though I use death as a rhetorical tool to talk about this case, it’s not an exaggeration. In 2011, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces began its attacks against independent civil society. When Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power in 2013, he continued the attacks on charity organizations, claiming that they are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. After that, he started to close and hunt down independent cultural organizations, then critical media personalities and journalists, then independent syndicates. Now, he is sharpening his tools to attack independent civil society and human rights organizations, including those working in healthcare, education, freedom of press, democratic reform or providing legal assistance.

Among the other NGOs affected by this campaign were those concerned with more complex issues such as corruption, poverty, violence against women and torture.

Although some of these organizations were critical of the state’s policies, the dominant majority, lately, have preferred to steer clear of politics and instead devote their efforts to offer basic services that the state no longer desires to, or is able to, provide.

Perhaps they singled us out because our organizations offer strong support to victims of human rights violations in Egypt. We defend survivors of torture from different parties in Egypt: The Muslim Brotherhood, liberals, leftists, victims of arbitrary arrests and supporters of the government alike. It does not matter that the charges against us are baseless and contradictory, or that their evidence is fabricated. What matters is that Sisi’s regime has decided to eliminate the last bastions of independent thinking and freedom of expression.

If the judiciary allows the state to use it for the closure of independent human  rights organizations today, it will have removed the last remaining limb of independent civil society in Egypt. After that, no intermediary will exist between Egyptian citizens and the state. The bridge will be destroyed and the consequences of that development will be catastrophic — not only for the Egyptian people, but for the stability of the Egyptian state itself.

What is the importance of independent civil society in Egypt? The work of NGOs is not restricted to the general provision of services to citizens, but also extends to performing the role of the critical conscience in times of crises in a way that curbs the scale of the violence. They provide alternative visions, one in which rationale comes first calling and that calls to revisit the law and the principles of justice and equality rather than discrimination and blind oppression.

Human rights organizations do not take part in political conflicts with the state except when they refuse to turn a blind eye to state actions that are oblivious to the rule of law.

Even during these times, the conflict is not political. A conflict takes place between two equal parties. It’s revenge on the part of the stronger party, armed with the loyalty and support of the powerful.

Marquez’s novel resembles a detective novel in reverse, where everyone, including the readers, knows the place, time and weapon of the murder before it even takes place. But the puzzle — if there is in fact a puzzle — is in asking why no one has tried to prevent the murder.

As the crime is committed, everyone has a rational reason as to why they failed to prevent it: Fear of assault, sense of helplessness, desire to gloat at those that Santiago had not supported in previous situations, or belief in conspiracy theories.

But the point the story makes is not about individual mistakes, but about the collective crime of doing nothing at all.

Unlike Santiago Nasar, my comrades and I are very well aware of the planned foretold death of our society.

Even if the death of Egyptian civil society has already been declared in different forms, it has not yet become inevitable or inescapable — it has not yet taken place.

In addition to this, our lives, freedom and that of independent human rights organizations in Egypt are not characters in a novel, but are real.

Translated by Asmaa Naguib


You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism