Authoritarian constitutional amendments tighten Egypt’s iron grip on civic space

Constitutional amendments approved consolidating authoritarian regime

A national constitutional referendum held in Egypt during the period 20th and 22nd April 2019, approved constitutional amendments that could allow the President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi to remain in power until 2030. The amendments allow President el-Sisi to extend his current four-year term to six years and run for another six-year term in 2024. The Parliament, dominated by members loyal to President Sisi, finalised and passed the amendments on 16th April. The referendum was marred by reports of serious civic space restrictions and “crackdown on fundamental freedoms” (see the “Expression” section below).

Earlier, on 12th February 2019, 11 local civil society organisations issued a joint statement condemning the proposed constitutional amendments, stating: “These amendments effectively serve to destroy the constitutional separation of powers, concentrating all authority into the president’s hands and solidifying his authoritarian rule.”

The constitutional amendments are extremely worrying for human rights and civic space freedoms as it will bolster the role of the military and could undermine the judicial independence.

Despite opposition; the approved amendments through the April referendum, will bring six new provisions related to judiciary and would curtail judicial independence including: abolishing independent budgets for judicial bodies; granting the president the authority to select the heads of judicial bodies and authorities, enabling the president to select the prosecutor general from among three candidates whom the Supreme Judicial Council nominates; establishing a Council of Judicial Bodies, to be headed by the president, to dictate the terms of judicial appointments, promotions and delegates; and abolishing the authority of the State Council to review draft contracts in which the state or its subsidiaries is a party, limiting its authority only to review and draft laws referred to it.

The amendments could also grant wider jurisdiction for military courts to try civilians.

Said Benarbia, Middle East and North Africa director of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) criticised the amendments telling AL Jazeera:

"Egypt's military and executive have subordinated the judiciary and the office of the general prosecutor to their political will, making them a docile tool in their ongoing, sustained crackdown on human rights in the country."

These amendments come in the backdrop of deteriorating civil society space in Egypt as civil society has been systematically targeted including subjected to lengthy detention and disproportionate sentences, enforced disappearances and censorship, as reported previously by CIVICUS Monitor.


Draconian 2017 NGO Law repealed, as new draft NGO law is proposed

Following the initial call of the President Sisi on 5th November 2018 to amend the draconian NGO Law 70/2017, the Committee established for this purpose, announced in April 2019, that the 2017 NGO law will be repealed and instead a new draft law governing NGOs in Egypt will be submitted to parliament.

The Social Solidarity Minister Ghada Wali, who is heading the Committee, was quoted claiming that "the new draft law meets the concerns and proposals of civil society in accordance with the Egyptian constitution, international agreements and Egypt's commitment to encourage civil society action".

The new draft law has not been made public by the government and while international human rights groups welcomed the revision of the NGO law, they also demanded transparency; calling on the government to “quickly publicise this draft so that civil society, which will be most affected by the law, has an opportunity to review and comment on its contents.”

Among the most important changes introduced by the new draft NGO law, as reported by local media, are the elimination of criminal penalties for non-compliance and unifying the oversight of CSOs to a single government authority.

Additionally, the following main amendments of the NGO law has been introduced, according to the Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram referring to information provided by the Social Solidarity Ministry:

  • Permits foreigners who have permanent or temporary residence in Egypt to be members of NGOs or their boards of directors, but not exceeding 25% of all members.
  • Allows associations to open branches outside of Egypt and grants them the right to receive financing, grants or donations from Egyptian or foreign individuals or entities authorised to operate in Egypt.
  • Allows NGOs to use their surplus revenues in investing in other production and service projects, and establish or contribute to the establishment of charitable companies and funds.
  • Authorises NGOs to carry out one or more activities for a certain period of time as specified by the entitled minister.


Constitutional referendum marred by civic space restrictions and violations 

In the lead-up to the referendum vote on the constitutional amendments, that strengthened the President Sisi’s power, observes reported that the Egyptian authorities carried out “a campaign of intimidation, ongoing mass arrests and a deepening crackdown on fundamental freedoms” and “attempted to silence any opposition”.

A Human Rights Watch report published ahead of the vote, documented mass arrests and “aggressive smear campaigns” by Egyptian authorities against activists and award-winning actors who called for boycotting the referendum or rejecting the amendments. HRW revealed that the authorities arrested or prosecuted over “160 dissidents or perceived dissidents” during the months of February and March. A number of public opposition figures were targeted with telephone threats, arbitrary arrests for their social activism opposing the referendum and criminal investigation. For example, the public prosecutor initiated an investigation into the opposition and former presidential candidate, Hamdeen Sabbahy, for “instigating chaos” and insulting the state.

The NetBlocks, an online censorship monitoring group, reported that the Internet providers in Egypt blocked over 34,000 internet domains on 15th April, linking it to possible government efforts to “stamp out” an opposition campaign launched a week earlier under the slogan “Void”. The group further reported that "the original website for the Batel, which translates into “Void” campaign was first blocked hours after it reportedly gathered 60,000 signatures on 9th April.

On 4th March, photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, who is widely known as Shawkan, was released after serving five years imprisonment. Shawkan was arrested in 2013 while covering a deadly crackdown by security forces on a sit-in held by supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi.

In January and February 2019, there has been "a wave of digital attacks that likely originated from government-backed bodies" targeting several prominent Egyptian human rights defenders, media and civil society organisations’ staff, Amnesty International's investigation revealed.  

AI further stated that: 

"The attacks appear to be part of a wider strategy, occurring amid an unprecedented crackdown on the same groups in what have turned Egypt into an “open-air” prison for critics."

Similar wave of digital attacks were documented in 2017 by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights that were carried out against civil society organisations and human rights defenders; working on a variety of human rights issues, including political freedoms, gender issues, and freedom of speech. 

Peaceful Assembly

Peaceful calls for protest met with arbitrary arrests and judicial harassment of activists  

Although Article 73 of the Constitution of Egypt guarantees the right to freedom of assembly, the security forces launched a security crackdown in response to mainly social media criticism and calls for protests over a fatal train crash in Cairo’s Ramses Station on 27th February 2019 that killed 22 people. In the first week of March, the security forces arrested around 70 people from across the country in connection to alleged involvement in anti-government protests. In the security crackdown, people have been arrested from public spaces or from their homes. The  lawyers from the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), a local NGO, were reported of providing the following accounts based on the defendants statements: that security forces arbitrarily stopped people, their social media accounts searched and those having content pertaining to the train crash apprehended.

According to the ECESR, 35 of the arrested were ordered to be detained for 15 days, pending investigations into their involvement in calls to protest against the government after the train crash. The 35 detainees were reportedly added by the Supreme State Security Prosecution to Case 1739/2018 on charges of joining a terrorist organisation and spreading false news.

Two transgender activists, Malak al-Kashif and Hossam Ahmed, were among those arrested and detained for investigation under the Case 1739/2018 on charges of joining an illegal organisation and using social media to commit a criminal act. In detention, they faced harassment, bullying and solitary confinement.

Neela Ghoshal, Human Rights Watch called for the release of activists's detained for exercising their human right to freedom of expression:  

If, as reports suggest, al-Kashif is being detained for exercising her right to call for peaceful protests, the Egyptian security forces should immediately release her, and should end their harassment and arbitrary detention of activists.”