History shows Egypt will likely fail to abolish the human rights movement

In September, an Egyptian court froze the assets of five prominent human rights defenders and three human rights organizations. It was an escalation in an ongoing campaign waged by Egypt’s governing elite against civil society.

Initiated in 2011, case no. 173 was reopened at the beginning of this year. This meant 12 human rights defenders were banned from travel, and several others were summoned for interrogation.

Unprecedented in scope, the case is likely to continue to sweep up a wide spectrum of advocates of economic, social, political and civil rights. The next step may well be to send several rights defenders to trial, but historical precedent shows that this will not succeed in crushing the independent human rights movement. History gives us a clearer understanding of the present and more realistic hopes for the future.

The campaign against rights organizations is in line with the actions of successive governments since the Armed Forces, and later the security apparatus, took control of the state and its institutions in the mid-1950s. Irrespective of government attempts to improve this image — Anwar Sadat permitting oppositional newspapers and a multi-party political system to function, Hosni Mubarak allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in elections and civil society to operate in the margins — and the current Constitution’s promises concerning freedoms and the right to organization, all successive regimes have despised civil society.

To rationalize the encroachment on public space, the state and its defenders resort to the rhetoric of fighting terrorism and protecting the nation from vague conspiracies that involve several groups and countries. Even the most far-fetched conspiracies have been hard to challenge, given state control and influence over Egypt’s media.

The state’s relationship with human rights defenders

Successive governments have been in conflict with the human rights movement since its birth in the early 1980s, moving between oppression and containment. The security apparatus in particular has tried to coopt human rights defenders, while oppressing and limiting the activities of those it couldn’t — particularly under Mubarak. A narrow window of permission has enabled the state to claim, especially to the West, the presence of a free civil society.

Since the end of the 1950s, the Egyptian state, with help from state-supported media and official religious institutions, has succeeded in restricting all forms of independent public engagement. It has coopted trade unions and professional organizations, while brutally oppressing any attempts at independent political activism, both violent and peaceful.

In the 1980s, the state began to see human rights activists as lefty opportunists or Islamists. After the 2011 revolution, security authorities blamed independent human rights organizations and defenders for Mubarak’s ouster. This fear that such organizations have the ability to incite popular anger against unprecedented state violations is driving the current crackdown. Some also believe it is payback for these organizations’ roles in highlighting state failures in recent years.

Egypt’s ruling elite has sought to completely isolate civil society organizations from politics, restricting them to customer service and charity work.

The birth of the human rights movement 

Egypt’s human rights movement began with the formation of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) in 1985, a time when human rights were deteriorating and political vision was absent.

The years after Sadat’s assassination in 1981 saw waves of violent confrontation between security forces and Islamist groups, leading to a state crackdown on Islamist groups and individuals. Torture became systemic, and restrictions on freedom of thought and belief increased. The government announced a state of emergency in 1981, stalling the implementation of several laws and suspending constitutional rights for 30 years. This resulted in a culture of impunity for security forces amid arbitrary arrests, mass detentions and collective punishments.

The EOHR’s founders included secular, leftist, nationalist and Nasserist intellectuals, such as Hani Shukrallah, Ahmed Nabil al-Helaly, Mohamed Sayed Said, Bahey Eddin Hassan (who was subject to an asset freeze in this September’s NGO case, along with his organization, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies), Aida Seif al-Dawla, Saad Eddin Ibrahim (who was imprisoned for several years under Mubarak), and Hisham Mubarak (the assets of his organization, and those of its director Mostafa Abul Hassan, were also frozen this September).

Although the EOHR achieved a lot between 1989 and 1993, including moves toward the professionalization of human rights activism and improving documentation of violations, the challenges were too great for it to bear. Internal disputes led to the organization coming under control of its Nasserist wing, and its impact and credibility suffered as a result. Several EOHR founders formed other independent human rights organizations in the early 1990s.

In 1993, Seif al-Dawla, also a professor of psychiatry at Ain Shams University, co-founded Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence with psychiatrists Suzan Fayad and Abdallah Mansour. The aim was to provide psychological and legal support for survivors of torture and, later, sexual violence. Until 2016, despite huge government pressure, it remained one of the most active and well-respected institutions dealing with torture cases.

In 1994, young leftist lawyer Hisham Mubarak established the Center for Human Rights Legal Aid, whose main strategy for addressing human rights violations was litigation.

More advocacy-based organizations were also formed. Among them was the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, which embodied the vision of its founders, Eddin Hassan and Mohamed al-Sayed Said, that rights-based activism does not necessarily derive legitimacy from a public base, but from human rights’ international legitimacy. It focused its activity on national, regional and international advocacy through training workshops, research and publishing.

A new generation of NGOs

Since the EOHR’s formation, the human rights movement has been in a constant legal struggle with the government. The law has changed three times since the 1960s, with successive versions revealing the state’s desire to control the space forged by rights organizations, instead of entering into partnership or setting acceptable rules for managing conflict with them.

In the 2000s, lawyer Ahmed Seif al-Islam and the Hisham Mubarak Law Centerinspired many young lawyers and rights activists to set up new organizations.

Among them was Hossam Bahgat, who founded the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) in 2002, after borrowing LE5,000 from Seif al-Islam. Bahgat founded the EIPR as a result of the EOHR’s lack of response to the infamous “Queen Boat case,” which confirmed that it had shifted from its democratic base of the early 1990s to a conservative stance. Through litigation, advocacy, research and documentation, the EIPR became one of Egypt’s most prominent human rights organizations.

In 2004, human rights lawyer Gamal Eid, who had co-founded the Legal Aid Center for Human Rights, set up the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, which focused on violations of freedom of expression in Egypt and the Arab world.

In 2006, Emad Mubarak founded the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression to defend the right to information and struggle for independence for researchers, websites and artistic production.

In 2007, Mozn Hassan founded Nazra for Feminist Studies to challenge discourse, legislation, and governmental and societal practices in relation to women.

In 2009, human rights lawyer Khaled Ali set up the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, which engaged in legal battles against state corruption, particularly in relation to privatization contracts handed to businessmen under Mubarak. One of its major achievements was winning a 2010 case that obliged the state to introduce the minimum wage.

As these organizations were being formed, however, government pressure increased — especially after the 2002 endorsement of the third civil associations law, which is still in use today. A recycled version of the annulled law 153 (1999), law 84 (2002) punishes organizations that carry out civil society activities without prior permits with prison sentences and allows the state to dissolve them. Like its predecessor, it prohibits organizations from undertaking political or trade-union activities, leaving wording vague so it can be applied, for example, to organizations that advocate for trade-union rights or help empower women to participate in elections. As a result, several of the abovementioned organizations sought to register as law firms, commercial companies or medical clinics (such as Al-Nadeem Center), rather than as NGOs or non-profits.

The political, geo-strategic and technical context in which these organizations were working was rapidly changing. Under Mubarak, the state was struggling with the effects of embracing a clear neoliberal system, with an impact on social and economic rights. The years between 2005 and 2010 witnessed the collapse of regional security, as well as upheavals in nations such as Iraq, Syria and Sudan. Marked developments in communication technology, as well as wider access to portable technologies and social communication, also led to new methods of organization and information exchange.

The current government’s closing of windows that were even partially open under Mubarak shows a political shortsightedness.

Beyond 2011: One step forward, two steps back?

In July 2011 the government, overseen by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces after Mubarak stepped down, ordered the formation of a committee to look into the foreign funding of all civil society organizations and identify those not properly registered according to law 84.

The committee’s report paved the way for a list of charges against several NGOs in case no. 173 (2011), which led a Cairo criminal court to issue prison sentences ranging between one and five years to 43 foreign and Egyptian workers in foreign NGOs. The verdict was issued with most of the foreign workers in absentia, after they were permitted to leave the country amid US pressure — Egyptian defendants either left the country or waited until the end of their suspended prison terms. The court also ordered the closure of the offices of the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, the International Journalist Center and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

The case was reopened toward the end of 2015, when an investigative judge requested that the funds of numerous human rights defenders, including some of their family members and employees, be frozen. This led to September’s court decision to freeze the assets of five individuals and three organizations. In June another court ordered an asset freeze on the Andalus Center for Tolerance Studies and its director Ahmed Sami. Other rights defenders, such as Negad al-Borai, who proposed a draft law against torture, have been interrogated for their work.

In early September the government made another attempt to issue a new association law, and provisions leaked to the media indicate that it circumvents constitutional guarantees for the right to organize. The draft law gives the executive authority power to control the registration and work of organizations, as well as donations and funding they receive, particularly from abroad. If Parliament’s actions since the beginning of the year are anything to go by, the bill will likely pass.

What now?

Egypt’s ruling elite has sought to completely isolate civil society organizations from politics, restricting them to customer service and charity work. The government has supported institutions, such as Masr al-Kheir and the Food Bank, that do not deal with the root causes of poverty. Indeed, security institutions themselves have been donating food and subsidizing and importing goods, such as baby formula. The state is primarily worried by organizations that document civil and political rights violations, or suggest alternative methods of protecting economic and social rights.

The 2011 revolution did not topple the regime. It shook the ruling elite enough to force them to push aside a few wealthy businessmen. Many of them have returned to Egypt in the past year, while the military and security apparatus is again at the forefront of social and political life, having managed their interests from backstage for a few years.

Since mid 2014 the government has been developing a new, populist version of neoliberalism — reducing government spending, especially on subsidies and social services, introducing value added tax and simplifying income tax, while public services such as education, health and housing continue to deteriorate. Economic and social issues have been separated from politics.

This brand of neoliberalism ignores how issues play out on the ground, eschewing effective social security networks and social policies that consider the minimum requirements of social justice.

The 2011 revolution did not erupt because a conspiring foreigner or Egyptian agent pressed a button, but because of the collapse of the old elite’s legitimacy, the failure of its economic policies to solve problems of unemployment and poverty, and a lack of opportunities for those seeking to engage with public issues without getting trapped in networks of corruption and nepotism. The main party responsible for the revolution was Mubarak’s government.

Thus the current government’s closing of windows that were even partially open under Mubarak shows a political shortsightedness. What is required is a state that secures basic citizenship and human rights, in which lower-income sectors can work together, organize, express their views, strike and protest in support of more just policies.

Bahgat, Eid and others whose assets were frozen left the court in September smiling, surrounded by friends, and announcing their determination to continue working. The government will likely continue to persecute them and try some on various charges, a few of which were mentioned during questioning, such as the receipt of foreign funding to destroy state institutions, which can be punishable with a life sentence. But this does not mean the end of the human rights movement in Egypt, which exists in response to a real need to open up public space and instill hope for the possibility of peaceful change.

As in economics, demand creates supply. Continuous violations and the shameful failures of state policy will create increasing numbers of human rights workers and defenders. The only other option is violence and blood, and then we will all be losers. Maybe existing organizations will close down, but hope lies in ongoing awareness-raising around human rights ideas, principles and practices among new generations, as well as an insistence on the rule of law and minimal standards of social justice.

Khaled Mansour 

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