Increased restrictions as Egyptians go to the polls: A growing gulf between rhetoric and reality

As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, civil society groups have reported that the conditions for Egyptian civil society show no sign of improving. Despite these critical reports from national civil society, Egyptian authorities continue to use the international stage to reaffirm their commitment to civil society. These disingenuous pledges come at a time when restrictive laws and the closure of prominent Egyptian civil society organisations (CSOs) exemplify the growing gulf between rhetoric and reality. This update details an alarming constriction of civic freedoms in the run-up to planned elections in late March 2018.

Association 

During his speech at the 56th Session of the Commission for Social Development that took place at the United Nations headquarters in late January 2018, Egyptian Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali acknowledged the significant role of civil society organisations in the social and economic development of Egypt. Similarly, at the Human Rights Council 37th session, Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Omar Marwan claimed that the new NGO law does not impede Egyptian civil society.

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, Egypt's NGO law targets foreign civic groups with burdensome regulations and bureaucratic restrictions. Similarly, domestic civic groups also face tight controls over their work, such as  having to seek government permission before publishing research. In an emblematic case, on 16th March 2018 the NGO Nazra for Feminist Studies announced the closure of its office after a fourteen months of harassment from the Egyptian authorities. The closure comes in consequence of the organisation's leader Mozn Hassan having her assets frozen by Egyptian authorities in January 2017, thereby making the maintenance of a physical office untenable. In a statement, the group commented on the closure, stating that: 

"Due to the asset freeze order mentioned above, Nazra will not be able to sustain the presence of a physical office, yet it announces the continuity of its activities and services through its volunteers, its feminist knowledge production that stems from engagement with the feminist movement, as well as its hotline and incumbent services, and this for the continuity of its contribution to the Egyptian feminist movement".

Despite the closure, the group has vowed to continue the NGO's work of strengthening the feminist movement in Egypt. 

The issue of foreign funding continues to stifle Egyptian civil society. In addition to enacting restrictive laws, Egyptian authorities have also used smear campaigns against NGOs receiving foreign funding. In a recent example on 10th March 2018, an Egyptian MP accused seven prominent human rights groups of being funded by foreign intelligence services. Alaa Abed, Head of the Human Rights Committee of the House of Representatives, claimed that the CSOs were paid to fabricate evidence against the government. The comments epitomise a situation wherein Egyptian authorities are taking steps to enfeeble and silence independent civil society groups. 

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights presented its annual report to the Human Rights Council 37th Session that reflects the bleak outlook reported by civil society. On 7th March 2018, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein emphasised the the threats faced by civil society actors in Egypt, stating that:

My Office continues to receive reports pointing to the ongoing targeting of human rights defenders, journalists, civil society activists and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as reports of torture in detention”.

Expression

While Egyptian authorities have used the guise of national security to tighten restrictions on foreign funding, it has also been used as a tool to muzzle freedom of expression. In a worrying development, on 14th March 2018 the Cybercrime Law was passed by Egypt's Parliament. The law contains hefty fines or up to five years imprisonment for online piracy or hacking government websites. Most alarmingly, the law also includes provisions for the regulation of social media. Local monitoring groups are concerned such restrictions will further damage freedom of expression and the press in the country. In a recent report entitled Occasionally by Decree, the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) highlighted censorship of the internet as a major concern in Egypt. According to AFTE, since May 2017, 496 websites have been blocked by the Egyptian authorities.

On 1st March 2018 and ahead of planned elections at the end of March, President Sisi warned that any political reporting deemed defamatory of the military or police would be considered treason. In this context, the Committee to Protect Journalists has documented the detention of several media workers, including:  

  • Moataz Wadnan, a reporter for the Istanbul-based Huffington Post Arabic, was arrested on 16th February 2018 after interviewing Hisham Geneina who was part of an opposition candidate's team and is now also in custody, according to local reports.
  • Ahmed Tarek Ibrahim Ziada, a documentary film editor whom authorities say is affiliated with the anti-government April 6 Youth Movement, was arrested outside Cairo on 28th February 2018 on charges of spreading false news and joining a banned group.
  • Mai el-Sabagh and Ahmad Mustafa, from the local news website "Raseef22", were arrested in Alexandria on 28th February 2018 and charged with possessing "photographic tools" that would spread false news, along with other national security charges, including being members of the banned April 6 youth organisation.

On 13th March 2018, UN human rights experts issued a statement strongly condemning the decision of the Egyptian prosecutor to seek the death sentence for acclaimed photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, known as “Shawkan”, who was arrested while covering anti-government protests in 2013.