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Egypt aims to throttle its civil society

Elisabeth Lehmann, Cairo / sbDecember 20, 2014

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi has passed a number of laws which will effectively weaken the country's civil society. Local NGOs will suffer under the new laws but also foreign ones.

Graffiti in Kairo Ägypten
Image: DW/R. Mokbel

One call was enough to stop all activities of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (CNF). "Egypt's foreign ministry told us that our current legal basis was not adequate and that we would have to re-register," René Klaff, head of the Cairo office of the economically liberal CNF, told DW. That means that all events within Egypt have to be suspended until a registration within the framework of the NGO law.

This doesn't only apply to the Friedrich Naumann Foundation; the ministry for social affairs has set a deadline of November 10 for all NGOs to re-register or close their doors. "But we aren't an NGO. We are a German political foundation. And we have assumed up to now that the NGO legislation only applied to Egyptian NGOs and not for us," Klaff said.

Wave of laws to undermine civil society

The registration obligation is part of a campaign against Egyptian civil society. In the past few months, President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi has signed into law a number of bills that effectively undermine the public sphere. Among others, criminal law has been made stricter. According to the new legislation, organizations in future can be prosecuted for receiving frunds from abroad if it undermines interests of the Egyptian state.

"The question is, how the state will define and interpret what undermines 'Egyptian interests' and whether or not we are willing to spend the next 15 years behind bars," says Gasser Abdel Razek of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). The rights organization has in the past strongly criticized the government and actions by police and military, for example, the clearance of a Muslim Brotherhood protest camp on Rabaa Square, which became called the Rabaa massacre, last August, in which around 1,000 people were killed within just a few hours.

EIPR has worked in Cairo since 2002, but now its days are numbered. Most of the organization's 76 employees, mostly legal experts, will have to find a new job from February. The obstacles that the state is currently setting up are too high. It is simply too dangerous to accept foreign money, the organization said. And without foreign money, EIPR cannot pay its people.

Ägypten Polizei durchsucht NGO Gebäude
'The obstacles set up by the state are too high'Image: dapd

Minister asks for understanding

EIPR's management wants to avoid at all costs that other employees meet the same fate as the young human rights lawyer Yara Sallam.

"On December 28 her case will be taken up again, after she has been in jail for six months and one week," Abdel Razek explains. Sallam was sentenced to three years in prison for breaking the so-called demonstration law. That legislation is from November 2013 and stipulates that demonstrators must register with the interior ministry beforehand. This regulation is also part of the government's strategy to restrict public debate, which became very lively after the 2011 revolution, Abdel Razek believes.

Symbolbild Ägypten NGO verlassen das Land
Many foreign NGOs have already had to leave EgyptImage: dapd

People at the ministry for social affairs don't seem to understand what all the upset is about. In an interview with Reuters news agency, Minister Ghada Wali asked representatives of civil society to be patient. She labeled the harsh criticism on the new NGO law as "immature" and too soon. She said it was simply about keeping an overview of all NGOs active in the country. At a press conference at the beginning of December, a representative of the ministry announced that there would be a database by the end of the year to list all 45,000 NGOs which have registered and that around seven percent of the organizations would be closed. Reasons for this were not provided by the ministry.

This is not expected to happen to the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, the foreign ministry announced.

"We are a renowned institution, whose objectives and values are shared by the Egyptian government, they told us. So it's not about ending our work here," project director Klaff explained. On the contrary: the foundation is only supposed to clarify its legal status so it can continue to work unchallenged in Egypt in future. Klaff and his colleagues will figure out how to manage that in the coming weeks.