Repression and restriction: Egypt's civil society on the defensive

Protests in Egypt, photo taken on October 21, 2010

The civil society in Egypt is facing a disastrous suppression and realignment by the government. By returning to normal foreign policy operations this weakening condition for civil society could be even strengthened.

Normatively charged expectations informed the media reporting of the Arab Spring in early 2011 – a metaphorical longing for the Middle East to burst forth from its authoritarian waters. Observers attributed a democracy-spreading function to the rediscovered Arab civil society in particular. After all, it was the mobilization of a broad civil coalition of workers, the marginalized middle class, Islamist groups, and a well-organized activist vanguard that toppled the ostensibly stable Mubarak regime in February 2011. Five years after the iconic “18 Days of Tahrir” and scarcely three years after the overthrow of the first freely elected president, however, the situation of Egypt's civil society is precarious: right now Berlin, London, Istanbul, and Doha are sheltering thousands of activists from persecution.

An estimated forty thousand more languish in Egyptian prisons for political reasons (for example, for violation of the new protest law, a de facto ban on all demonstrations), often without a verdict. By comparison, Cuba had around a thousand political prisoners in the worst times, Myanmar up to three thousand. Those whose cases are put to trial in Egypt are increasingly receiving life in prison or even a death sentence. These are usually imposed in mass trials and sometimes by special military tribunals, which since 2015 have condemned more than three thousand people.

Restrictions are increasing outside the prisons as well: independent unions are close to disappearing, unwelcome parties have been dissolved, and the lead organizers of street protests (such as the April 6 Youth Movement) are prohibited. Moreover, critics of the regime are being affected by extra-legal state power with growing frequency: arbitrarily extended pre-trial detention, forced disappearances, and extralegal killings have become part of the repressive repertoire of the security state and are increasing rapidly. What is certain is that since mid-2013, more than two thousand civilians have been killed by state violence. Hundreds are missing. Icons of the revolution such as the socialist Shaimaa al-Sabbagh are as much the victims as are independent documentarians: journalists, photographers, and scientists are increasingly being targeted. The case of Giulio Regeni in February 2016 made this clear: the Italian PhD candidate had been researching Egyptian trade unions in Cairo, and this apparently crossed a line. His abduction and murder bears the hallmarks of the security apparatus, but an independent investigation was torpedoed by the authorities.

Constricted scope of action since mid-2013

The establishment of probably the most brutal security state in the history of the republic is in contrast to the increased scope of action for civil society actors after 2011: as the state lost control over public space and countless new political parties were founded, also a large number of civil society organizations were formed. By winter 2014, forty-five thousand NGOs had been registered as such at the Ministry of Social Solidarity. Some forward-looking groups, however, sagely avoided any formalization of their structures, as they early realized the limited protection that a clear legal status would provide. Instead, they explored alternative business models. Groups working on sensitive issues such as torture or corruption and especially those with controversial political affiliations (for example, to the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood) sought to elude state supervision as law firms, limited-liability enterprises, or media-production companies.

Those eschewing registration included most of the two dozen human-rights organizations that in years past had taken a leading role in the struggle for transitional justice and reforms in the security sector. Together with a few journalists’ collectives (such as Mada Masr), right now they are the only remaining civic forces playing a critical monitoring role in government behavior. But their importance as watchdogs is counterposed with their critical existential situation: if oppositional movements already had a difficult time under the auspices of the Supreme Military Council, al-Sisi’s seizure of power marks the beginning of a concerted campaign against all forms of expression by a critical civil society. Mohamed Zarea, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, recently described this as “their fiercest attack yet” on the Egyptian human rights movement, “we are talking about wiping it out completely.”

Without an attempt to enumerate all the paragraphs whose vague formulation has been used for oppression, it should be noted that the combination of more than 175 presidential decrees adopted since July 2013 delimits a restrictive framework that allows authoritarian governance without the declaration of emergency laws. Paradoxically, a law from the Mubarak era has had the most serious impact: according to Law 84/2002, known as the NGO law, all civil associations must formally register as such, putting the content of their work, their finances and their personnel structure under the auspices of the Ministry of Social Solidarity. On first glance a mere formality, the obligation to register de facto massively limits the scope of action of NGOs. For example, it effectively requires them to abstain from jeopardizing “public order and morality” through their work (Article 11).

The rules for foreign financing of NGOs (Article 17) have also been consistently applied recently to prosecute critics under the law. The ongoing Case No. 173 rests on these and has since taken on iconic status as the flagship of the politicized judiciary in the struggle against free civil society: 43 employees of foreign organisations (including the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung) were convicted in the proceeding back in 2013. Three years later, the case has now been reopened. This time, Egyptian human rights activists are in the crosshairs: well-known members of the human rights movement such as journalist Hossam Bahgat (EIPR), lawyer Gamal Eid (CIHRS) and feminist Mozn Hassan (Nazra), have been imprisoned or banned from leaving the country. Human Rights Organizations are being investigated at the same time: in June a court ordered the seizure of the assets of the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies.

The normalization of foreign policy supports the dictatorship

Although access to information on Egypt is spotty, observers will inevitably see two trends: On the one hand, civil society is retreating into informality. Public forums for mediating social interests, then, are gradually being replaced by unofficial channels for conflict regulation. This goes hand in hand with the suppression or realignment of the Egyptian NGO landscape and is a loss not only for Egypt, but also for international cooperation: foreign development organizations as well as academic institutions and editorial boards are losing their most reliable partners in the country, along with the only reliable access to information about corruption and governmental abuse of office.

By returning to the normal foreign policy operations of the Mubarak era, Egypt’s Western partners are ultimately complicit in this: the elites in Cairo are encouraged by signals, especially from the West, that the observance of human rights standards against investment interests and the desired normalization of economic cooperation is of more secondary importance. Worse still, the shortsighted bilateral measures such as the signing of a German-Egyptian agreement on security cooperation in mid-July 2016 send a devastating signal that Europe has long since come to terms with the authoritarian status quo.

This article is part of our dossier "Squeezed – Spaces for Civil Society".