Amnesty International has castigated Egypt's authorities for undermining human rights groups in the country. It says the crackdown has escalated in 2016, five years after the post-Mubarak regime came to power.
The London-based organization calls on Egypt's authorities to halt what it calls its "persecution of these groups" and drop its investigation into their activities. Human rights defenders could face up to 25 years in prison, an Amnesty statement notes.
"In recent weeks, the Egyptian authorities have summoned human rights workers for questioning, banned them from travel and attempted to freeze their personal funds and family assets," the statement reads.
Phase one of the crackdown
The state's investigation into the funding of local and foreign groups began in July 2011, five months after the toppling of former president Hosni Mubarak, and has already led to convictions and the closure of the Egypt offices of five international nongovernmental organizations.
The first phase of the investigation into human rights groups' funding ended in June 2013 when a Cairo criminal court sentenced 43 foreign and Egyptian employees of five international organizations to between one and five years in prison, on charges of operating unlawfully in the country and receiving foreign funding without permission.
Under Egyptian law, prosecutors could charge leading human rights defenders for working without official registration or accepting foreign funding without government authorization.
Phase two begins
"The Egyptian authorities have moved beyond scaremongering and are now rapidly taking concrete steps to shut down the last critical voices in the country's human rights community," said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
Amnesty says the Egyptian authorities should also lift all travel bans and asset freezes against human rights workers, whose activities it says are protected by Egypt's constitution and international law.
"The authorities should also lift the gag order, which prohibits media outlets from publishing anything on the case other than statements issued by the presiding judges until the investigations are complete. This violates the right to freedom of expression, enshrined in Egypt's constitution and international law," the statement reads.
Mozn Hassan, founder and director of the Nazra for Feminist Studies organization, was summoned on March 22 for questioning as a defendant in the foreign funding case. She is due to appear before the investigating judges on March 29.
Courts, prosecutors and security agencies have also barred at least 10 human rights activists from travel in recent weeks, including Mohamed Lotfy, director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, and four employees of the Egyptian Democratic Academy.
All of the sentences were either suspended or issued in absentia, but the decision forced the closure in Egypt of the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, Freedom House, the International Center for Journalists and Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
Death of civil society?
"Egypt's civil society is being treated like an enemy of the state, rather than a partner for reform and progress," Said Boumedouha, deputy director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Program, said.
Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization, rated Egypt "not free" in 2011. It gave the country a 'Political Rights Score' of 6 and 'Civil Liberties Score' of 5 a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level.
Freedom House's office was among the offices of NGOs in Cairo raided by Egyptian security forces in December 2011 for "violation of Egyptian laws including not having permits."
"Instead of shutting down the last vestiges of civil society, Egypt should welcome scrutiny of its human rights record and take on board the constructive criticisms of local NGOs. The authorities should engage in an open and genuine dialogue with its rights movement," says Michel Tubiana, President of the EuroMed Rights NGO.