Egypt: NGOs Under Attack

Government Jails Prominent Human Rights Activists

On the pretense of preserving law and order, Egyptian authorities have put NGOs in cross hairs. Repressive penalties and restrictions bar travel for scores of activists, freeze assets and send critics to jail. 

A series of administrative detention orders put prominent human rights lawyer Malek Adly in solitary confinement for 100 days. Supporters blamed his incarceration on opposition to the sale by Egypt of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. Three months after his release in August 2016, Mr. Adly was preparing to fly to France. He was not permitted to leave Egypt. Authorities said that solitary confinement ruled out a plane ticket. International rights groups cried foul, labeling the punitive action part of a campaign “to suppress independent, critical voices inside the Country,” the New Zealand Heraldreported. 

Mr. Madly joins other activists who pay a price for challenging government policies. Hossam Bahgat, founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and Gmal Eid, founder of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, lost their passports and saw their assets frozen. 

The Egyptian media outlet MadaMasr counts 257 travel bans for political reasons since 2011, when the Arab spring made news. In response, eight international rights groups — Amnesty InternationalEuroMed RightsFront Line DefendersHuman Rights Watch, IFEX, Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, People in Need and Solidar — jointly condemn “increasingly routine application of arbibrary travel bans” with a singular aim: undermine legitimate and peaceful activities in defense of human rights. 

Seven chapters and 63 articles added to Egyptian penal statutes criminalize work that is pivotal to civil society. “They made it seem like receiving funding was like dealing drugs,” a former director of the Egypt program for Freedom House, Nancy Okail, reportedly said. A court convicted Okail and 42 fellow defendants of operating an organization and receiving funds from a foreign government without a license. The verdict, in abstentia for Okail and many others, imposed five-year prison sentences. 

On one side of these costly legal battles sit NGOs scrambling to keep their lights on, never mind fulfilling their missions. On the other, a so-called fact finding committee probes foreign funding of civil society groups. Its allies include the ministry of planning and international cooperation, the ministry of social solidarity, state security investigations services, general intelligence, the interior ministry’s public funds investigation department and the ministry of foreign affairs. 

Rules also keep ideas about social justice out. The Egypt-based Association for Freedom of Thought and Expressionscrutinized motivation. It concluded that anti government stances bar admission. In one typical case, MadaMasrreported that:  

…prominent Tunisian writer and academic was deported from Cairo Airport, despite being officially invited to speak at a conference at the state-owned Alexandria library. After her deportation, that she had been detained at Cairo Airport for more than 14 hours, and was subsequently flown out of the country for being “a threat to national security. 

No one denies that authorities have a difficult policing challenge with disorder always on the fringe. However, suppressing organizations that advance human rights and humanitarian values attacks the foundation of a civil society. That’s an invitation to unintended and unwanted consequences for all concerned.