Egypt

Egypt's NGO law aims to 'erase civil society'

The law is part of a wider crackdown on human rights groups, activists say.

The current establishment's 'mentality and culture' does not allow for the presence of civil society as a whole, says Fayad [EPA]

Egyptian human rights groups say they are being subject to a widening government crackdown targeting organisations accused [by the government] of threatening national security.  

The latest attempts to restrict the operations of non-governmental organisations that are mostly involved in human rights work took place last week when Egyptian authorities physically sealed shut the doors of the El Nadeem Centre, a prominent NGO that helps victims of violence and torture.

"This is a big hit - a unique and significant one -  in light of the government's crackdown against civil society in Egypt," Suzan Fayad, the centre's director told Al Jazeera.

Al Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture has been operating as a registered clinic with the health ministry for the past 24 years, according to Fayad. 

In response to the centre's closure, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said: "Instead of tackling the pernicious pattern of police torture, President [Abdel Fattah] el-Sisi sends the police to seal the clinic that helps the victims and has been a vital source of information about deaths in detention, denial of medical care and abuse by law enforcement officers."

"The move against al-Nadeem Centre sends the message loud and clear that al-Sisi's government won't confront torture and will do its best to silence critical voices," Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at HRW, said. 

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Even volunteer work will become subject to total supervision under the pretext of national security. This mentality of maintaining public security has reached a level of madness.

Suzan Fayad, director of el-Nadeem centre

Al Nadeem has been fighting a legal battle against its closure for a year now since an initial closure order was first issued in February 2016. The centre's lawyer, Taher Abu al-Nasr, told Al Jazeera that the latest order targeted the clinic, not the centre's operational offices, but the police closed both down.

"There is no legal reason for them to close down the centre, it is politically motivated, and no one informed us what the alleged violation cited in the order actually is," Abu al-Nasr said.

Abu al-Nasr added that Al-Nadeem centre's members were committed to reopening it, and that the case was pending a final verdict. "We stopped documenting torture cases for the public reports two years ago. It is extremely important for us to document first-hand accounts, to prove what torture methods are being used in prisons," Fayad explained.

"We've been doing it for 20 years, but we are now too worried about our victims' safety and wellbeing - so we had to stop [making it public]."

Al Nadeem caters for about 250 cases a month, including new victims, according to Fayad. Over the span of 20 years, the centre has documented 14,700 torture cases, and 1,000 cases of domestic abuse, the details of each case are now accessible to the Egyptian authorities in the aftermath of the raid.

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The closure of al-Nadeem is part of the wider crackdown on civil society in Egypt. Last November, a new bill, that was approved by the Egyptian parliament, stated that centres of all types would need to re-register themselves as NGOs under the ministry of social affairs, regardless of what services they offer.

The law, referred to as the "NGO law", places restrictions on the formation of civil society organisations as much as their general activities, both of which will be subject to security intervention, according to the law. It will come into full effect if the president signs the decree.

Fayad described the draft law as "the worst in Egyptian history".

"It puts an end to the very last platform available for people who want to peacefully organise. It restricts the operational space of every kind of organisation and puts them under the ministry's direct supervision," she said. "Even volunteer work will become subject to total supervision under the pretext of national security. This mentality of maintaining public security has reached a level of madness."

Fayad said that the current establishment's "mentality and culture" does not allow for the presence of civil society as a whole.

The NGO law is part of a wider crackdown on human rights groups, activists say. Since coming to power in 2014, Sisi's government has imprisoned thousands, and banned protests by maintaining legislation prohibiting the public gathering of 10 or more people without prior authorisation from the interior ministry.

READ MORE: Egypt's anti protest law: Legalising authoritarianism

Moreover, several individuals and organisations are now involved in an investigation that dates back to December 2011, originally brought against NGOs that receive foreign funding, known as case 173, in which 43 NGO employees were convicted. 

In October 2016, an Egyptian court approved a freeze on the assets of five prominent human rights activists and three NGOs accused of receiving foreign funds to harm national security and spread instability in Egypt. 

Among those accused are prominent investigative journalist Hossam Bahgat, human rights lawyer Gamal Eid, and award-winning feminist Mozn Hassan, all of whom have been barred from travel pending investigations. The five-year-old case remained largely inactive until last year.The defendants could face life imprisonment if found guilty.

According to Daftar Ahwal, an Egypt-based research and documentation centre, there have been 554 cases of departure and entry bans, as well as arrests, at Egyptian airports since the 2011 Egyptian uprising that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak's 30-year-rule.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Mohamed Aziz, director of the Egypt-based NGO Al Haqanya, said that any act of opposition to the clampdown would be ineffective, as there is a clear violation of the right to organise and self-express.

"People are now repressing a great deal of fury, but civil society groups in Egypt are not a political force; they're reformative in nature, they serve as entities on the ground," Aziz added.

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Experts say that the NGO law has the "intention and mechanism to erase civil society off the socio-political sphere in Egypt".

"It shall imminently transform 'independent' voices of civil society and NGOs into a 'dependent' movement of entities. It will carry out enormous practical and operational restrictions on funding, activities, and research, that makes it impossible for these groups to conduct their work without prior interference by the government," Fadi al-Qadi, an Amman-based regional human rights advocate and commentator, told Al Jazeera.

While the law awaits a presidential ratification, several press reports have raised questions bout whether this ratification will ever materialise. According to Article 123 of the Constitution, there is a 30-day period after the receipt of a piece of legislation in which the president may either approve a law or return it to parliament with objections. In the case of the NGO law, the 30 days have elapsed and there has been no word from Sisi.

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But, according to Qadi, if the law is endorsed by Sisi, it will create an effective regime of control over all aspects of non-governmental activities.  "But most critical to civil society groups will be criminal prosecution for engaging in activities 'not allowed' by the law. That could include, for instance, reporting on torture cases, or citing corruption in governmental bodies," he added. 

"It simply aims to introduce safeguards against a possibility of a revolution, at least, a peaceful one."

Rights group Amnesty International has referred to the law as a "death warrant" for Egyptian NGOs. 

"They simply cannot do their jobs without considering risks of prosecution, detention, long-term imprisonment and, in some circumstances, disappearances," said Qadi. 

Source: Al Jazeera News