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PoliticsMiddle East

Setback for human rights in Egypt

January 13, 2022

A prominent rights group in Egypt, the Arabic Network for Human Rights, is ending operations just as the country braces for a controversial NGO law. Is this the beginning of the end for civil society in Egypt?

Men with chained wrists
The controversial "NGO Law" is widely seen as the end of independent human rights work in Egypt - if it comes into effect. Image: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Egypt's human rights defenders lost a prominent pillar this week. 

On Monday, the renowned Arabic Network for Human Rights (ANHRI) said it was ending operations "in the absence of the bare minimum of the rule of law and respect for human rights."

The decision followed police arrests and threats against the network's team.

"There were also attempts to forcibly recruit some of our team to work as informants and spies against ANHRI," Gamal Eid, the founder of ANHRI, told DW.

The decision was announced on the day of a deadline requiring non-governmental organizations to register under a controversional NGO law. The law is set to come into effect this year.

The law that was drawn up in 2019 places severe curbs on the work of civil society groups and gives the government sweeping powers to monitor and control the organizations' work and funding.

It also bans NGOs and civl society groups from collaborating with foreign organisations, conducting opinion polls or publishing their results without governmental approval.

Moreover, it also prohibits any work that undermines "national security" or is deemed "political."

In cases of violation, organizations face fines of up to one million Egyptian pounds ($60,000, €52,500).

Gamal Eid, the prominent rights lawyer in Egypt
Gamal Eid promises to continue defending human rights despite an investigation, a travel ban and a freezing of assetsImage: Ahmed Hatem/AP Photo/picture alliance

Egypt's president defends controversial law

The same day ANHRI announced its closure, 17 Egyptian and international human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) issued a joint statement , calling on the "Egyptian parliament to repeal the NGO law and work with independent human rights organizations to adopt a new legislative framework upholding the right to freedom of association in accordance with international law and standards."

However, Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi claimed that the new law will protect human rights and allow "organizations to establish themselves simply by giving notice to the authorities rather than obtaining the government's permission."

He also reiterated the need for this law as an "integrated approach and global treatment of human rights in Egypt," at the World Youth Forum, which took place this week in Sharm el-Sheikh.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi at the international youth conference, "World Youth Forum"
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi reaffirmed his commitment to the controversial NGO law at this week's World Youth ForumImage: AP/picture alliance

The deadline  to register under the controversial NGO law comes just a few days ahead of the 11th anniversary of the Egyptian uprising, called 25 January Revolution.

The uprising eventually ousted long-time President Hosni Mubarak. He was succeeded by the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, who was overthrown in a coup d'état, which was led by the then Minister of Defence, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who eventually became president in 2014.

Ever since, the situation for civil and human rights organizations has been deteriorating. A widespread crackdown has left thousands of dissidents and journalists in jail.

The Committee to Protect Journalists now ranks Egypt as one of the world's worst jailers of journalists.

'An existential threat'

Hafsa Halawa, visiting scholar with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), said  this week's events are a culmination of years of attacks against Egypt's civil society.

"While the law and its registration requirements are a contributing factor, the environment in which the Egyptian civil society has been forced to try to work in over the last decade is incredibly dangerous and the regime's intention — with crackdowns, detentions and judicial investigations rather than enforced closures — has been to put the onus on organizations to make such decisions to halt activities themselves," Halawa told DW. 

Indeed, several human rights organizations have already left Cairo and have since relied on sources and information from the remaining activists and groups like ANHRI.

"The closure of ANHRI, one of Egypt's oldest and most respected human rights NGOs, exemplifies the existential threat faced by Egypt's human rights movement," Hussein Baoumi, Amnesty International's Egypt researcher, told DW.

He said he hoped that the international community would stand up to the Egyptian state's vicious crackdowns by establishing, for example, a monitoring and reporting mechanism on the human rights situation in Egypt at the UN Human Rights Council session in March.

"If not, ANHRI won't be the only human rights group to close down," he said.

Independent human rights work 'nearly impossible'

It's a view echoed by Human Rights Watch. The group published its annual report on Thursday with calls, urging Western leaders to "do better" against autocrats.

"The international community cannot allow the state's decimation of Egypt's once vibrant civil society to continue with no cost," a representative at HRW told DW.

For HRW, there is no doubt that the NGO law, if it does come into effect, "will make independent human rights work nearly impossible."

Another human rights group, Dublin-based Front Line Defenders has been providing small-scale financial support for security and protection of human rights organisations in Egypt. It's been monitoring the latest developments closely.

"For us, ANHRI's work was a pillar as they were a credible source, they made us aware of cases and more marginalized human rights defenders that otherwise wouldn't be known to other human rights organizations," Adam Shapiro, head of communications & visibility at Front Line Defenders, told DW.

The organization will explore how to continue supporting Egyptian human rights defenders at risk, in light of the new law that bans foreign funding.

'We cannot give in'

So far, the brief record of Egypt's "2022 Year of civil society" — a national strategy for human rights that was announced by el-Sissi in September 2021 — doesn't look promising for human rights defenders, including for ANHRI-founder Eid.

However, for Eid, this is not a reason to stop defending human rights.

"I will work as an independent lawyer on the cases related to prisoners of conscience, such as the case of Hammed Oxygen, Amr Emam, and dozens of cases against young prisoners of conscience who are not well-known, and from cities outside Cairo," he told DW.

Eid says suspending ANHRI's work is "not a defeat or giving in. A more adequate term would be a 'warrior's rest'," he said. "We cannot give in to dictatorship and being deprived of the state of justice and human rights."

Edited by: Sonia Phalnikar

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Jennifer Holleis is an editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa.