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A heavy blow to Egyptian civil society

El-Kaoutit Khalid Kommentarbild App PROVISORISCH
Khalid El Kaoutit
June 10, 2017

A new law in Egypt strictly limits the work of non-governmental organizations in the country. That is not what revolutionaries took to the streets for in 2011, says DW's Khalid El Kaoutit.

Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Kairo Ägypten
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The fatal shot has been fired - Egyptian civil society is dead. Soon the government's misdeeds will go undetected. Political opponents, should they ever be called before the courts, will no longer be afforded legal counsel. The world will never again hear about torture in Egyptian prisons - it won't even know if political prisoners are being held in them. For over the last five years, such abuses were only brought to light by the work of human rights organizations.

The image that President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and his supporters have been happily propagating, that of Egypt as a stable country and a reliable partner in the fight against terror and curbing streams of refugees, is not to be tarnished. That is the express desire of the regime on the Nile. And its new nongovernmental organization (NGO) law is designed to turn that desire into reality.

Back to the Mubarak era

It only took President el-Sissi six months to move the extremely controversial law regulating the work of NGOs through parliament and ultimately sign it. Egyptian activists described the proposal as a "massacre" of human rights groups and NGOs. It is more restrictive than rules under former dictator Hosni Mubarak. Still, despite national and international criticism, the current government insisted on passing the law. The official justification is that the regulation of NGO activities is necessary to ensure national security and to stop the supposed influence of foreign "powers."

El-Kaoutit Khalid Kommentarbild App PROVISORISCH
DW's Khalid El Kaoutit

German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Cairo in March, between the time the bill passed through parliament and el-Sissi signed it. After her meeting with el-Sissi, Merkel announced that the Egyptian government was willing to reauthorize the work of German political foundations operating in the country. Merkel emphasized the work being done by such organizations and its importance for the development of Egyptian society. That development was also a central demand from Egyptians when they took to the streets in 2011.

Total control

The law stipulates that the 47,000 or so NGOs currently operating in Egypt have one year's time to comply with the new regulations. Foreign organizations, among them German political foundations, must now pay the Egyptian state roughly 15,000 euros ($17,000) before they will be allowed to resume their work in the country. That is small change for the Germans in light of Egypt's strategic importance for stability in the region. However, a more meaningful hurdle is the stipulation that Germany's Egyptian partners will face much greater scrutiny than they have in the past.

Read more: German political foundations stuck in a rut in Egypt amid growing restrictions

The law declares, for instance, that field studies and interviews may only be conducted under the supervision of authorities. And the results of such studies and interviews may only be published with government permission. That is as if one party involved in a conflict would allow reporting but would itself choose interview partners and also authorize all such interviews before they could be published. Those who do not abide by the rules will face stiff fines and long prison terms. Is that any way to ensure the neutrality and objectivity of such reports? Hardly.

No place for criticism

Chancellor Angela Merkel's words in early March sounded like a last glimmer of hope in terms of the pressure that Western leaders could apply to Cairo. Yet, they were nothing of the like. For President el-Sissi has no need for civil society. He has never pretended that freedom or human rights would have any priority in his concept of rule. Instead, his concept is based on the security and stability that can only be guaranteed by an authoritarian regime. That has been evident over the last several years. Activists that uncover corruption, torture or police brutality are troublemakers that must be silenced in el-Sissi's eyes.

The fact that el-Sissi signed the NGO law is just another logical step in his reign. And the victims will be all those who took to the streets in the 2011 revolution to fight for a better, more just, and yes, more stable Egypt.  

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