Environment for civil society in Egypt: “among the darker and more dangerous”


On 10th September 2017, human rights lawyer Ibrahim Metwally was arrested, ahead of his planned trip to Switzerland. Metwally had planned to visit Geneva to give evidence at the 113th Session of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) at the UN Human Rights Council. As the coordinator and co-founder of the Association of Families of the Disappeared, Metwally is a prominent Egyptian activist who is well known for his work on many cases involving disappearance and torture. Most recently, Metwaly had gained international attention to providing legal assistance to Giulio Regeni, an Italian national who was abducted in Egypt and later died in detention. On 20th September 2017, Egyptian authorities extended Metwally's detention for a further fifteen days. With growing concerns over his health as well as credible allegations of torture by electrocution during his detention, civil society across the world has highlighted his arrest as an alarming trend. Both regional and international organisations have issued statements calling for coordinated pressure to ensure his immediate and unconditional release.

The arbitrary detention and torture of activists affiliated with the League of the Families of the Disappeared have become emblematic of the ruthlessly orchestrated crackdown against critical organisations and activists in Egypt. On 30th August 2017, on the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, ten organisations issued a joint statement urging Egyptian authorities to drop the preventative detention order against another female activist affiliated with the League of the Families of the Disappeared, Hanan Badr el-Din. As another prominent human rights defender and co-founder of the League, Hanan Badr el-Din has spent over three months in arbitrary detention for her work. Despite the pleas from international civic groups, at the time of writing she remains in detention. 

During his opening speech at the 36th session of the Human Rights Council, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein cited Egypt as country of serious concern. Al Hussein noted that under the guise of countering terrorism, authorities in Egypt have used the state of emergency to justify the systematic silencing of civil society and closure of civic space. As part of his speech, Hussein commented on many issues facing Egyptian civil society documented on the CIVICUS Monitor. He stated that: 

"My Office has received reports of oppressive measures including increasing waves of arrests, arbitrary detention, black-listing, travel bans, asset freezes, intimidation and other reprisals against human rights defenders, journalists, political dissidents and anyone affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood group. We are also receiving increased allegations of torture in detention, enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings and trials of civilians in military courts". 

As previously featured in Egypt's last update on the CIVICUS Monitor, another key concern is the new NGO law adopted in May 2017. Widely condemned, the new law restricts the activities of civil society organisations, breaches international commitments and contravenes Egypt’s own constitution. Affecting over 46,000 civil society organisations, the new law targets foreign civic groups through burdensome regulations and bureaucratic restrictions, while domestic organisations now need state permission before publishing any results from a survey or study done in Egypt. The latest publication on the Enabling Environment in the Arab Region by CIVICUS Monitor partner, Arab NGO Network for Development, defines Egypt's new the law as a death knell for independent civil society.

In reference to Egypt's widely-documented downward spiral in respect for civic freedoms, the United Nations Committee Against Torture published its annual report documenting the use of torture across the world. The report highlighted the Egyptian authorities' systematic use of torture against individuals held in arbitrary detention, as well as the absence of impartial investigations into alleged cases of torture. When speaking specifically about civil society activists, the committee said that:   

“Torture is carried out by Egyptian military, police, and prison officials for the purposes of punishing protesters and, since 2013, members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, to coerce confessions, and pressure detainees to implicate others in crimes”.

The committee joined the chorus of civil society groups in urging authorities in Egypt to immediately stop the use of torture against dissidents and promptly investigate allegations of mistreatment during detention.