North Africa, West Asia

Who will defend Egypt’s human rights defenders?

NGOs play an essential role in local communities; the government’s reckless, repressive actions will jeopardize the country’s future.

Shena Cavallo
13 June 2017
Bernd von Jutrczenka/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Bernd von Jutrczenka/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.In late May, President Abdel Fattah El Sisi enacted a law imposing strict regulations on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), accelerating Egypt’s on-going crackdown on human rights and civil society. This law, in short, will mean the end of some of Egypt’s leading NGOs, including those working to advance the rights of women and girls.

The law places all civil society operations, funding, and activities under the authority of a new government entity, the “National Authority for the Regulation of Non-Governmental Foreign Organizations.”

The name, however, is misleading; the regulations will apply to both foreign organizations and local Egyptian organizations receiving foreign funding. The law bans organizations from engaging in any work that the government considers harmful for national security, public order, public morals, or public health.

The new policy builds on a pattern of human rights violations. At last count, Egypt held an estimated 60,000 political prisoners, countless NGOs have been shut down, and well-respected activists, journalists, and NGO staff have faced a myriad of trumped up charges.

For example, the lawyer and women’s rights activist, Azza Soliman, faces false charges of “undermining national security.” She is currently under a travel ban and her personal assets have been frozen. If convicted, she could face up to fifteen years in prison.

In flagrant violation of both the Egyptian constitution and international human rights law, Azza was never informed that she was under investigation, and only discovered the investigation when she attempted to leave the country in November and was denied.

Given this bleak scenario, how could things get much worse?

When Françoise Girard, IWHC’s President, and I were there in April, we met with activists and organizations who spoke about the impact of the escalating crackdown. A leading Egyptian activist described the law as “basically an end to human rights work and nongovernmental organizations.” Egyptian bureaucracy is so burdensome that even if organizations have the capacity to submit all the required fees and paperwork, approvals could take weeks, months, or even years.

We saw firsthand the essential role NGOs play in Egyptian communities. We met with activists who run campaigns combating violence against women, help parents talk to their children about sexual abuse, provide support and treatment for those living with HIV, and educate communities about the health risks and rights violations of female genital mutilation (FGM).

Activists believe this new law aims to silence any and all human rights activists and organizations, but could limit other institutions as well. They worry that charities and nonprofit health and education institutions could be targeted simply because they are unafraid to show the ‘real’ Egypt and chip away at the façade the government has put up that everything is going well in the country.

The organization Nazra for Feminist Studies and its Executive Director, Mozn Hassan, have faced an onslaught of attacks from the government, including asset freezes and travel bans—in part prompted by the organization’s efforts to unmask the street harassment that women faced during the Tahrir Square uprisings. Though sexual harassment is a common occurrence in Egypt, their efforts countered the government’s narrative that women are safe in public spaces.

If the crackdown on NGOs supporting local communities continues, it’s doubtful that the government can step up to fill this void.

It’s no coincidence that the most targeted activists, including Azza Soliman and Mozn Hassan, are seeking to address the country’s major challenges and needs, which the government often cannot, or will not, meet.

The organization Azza co-founded, the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA), works to combat harmful traditional practices, such as FGM, and also provides legal assistance and support to women across the country. 

In 2016, Parliament passed a law to make female genital mutilation a felony with penalties of five to seven years of prison, with an additional term of up to 15 years if the operation leads to death or permanent injury. Despite the official ban, FGM remains a widespread practice.

While the Sisi government has attempted to position itself as a secular, “enlightened” alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood—one that cares about women’s rights—progress in ending FGM, sexual violence, and early marriage is unlikely if the government continues to obstruct the operations of the organizations trying to tackle these problems. 

Human rights defenders and the organizations they lead are critical to effecting change. Ironically, even as the Egyptian government attacked Azza and her critical role in advancing the rights of women and girls in Egypt, local authorities reached out to CEWLA staff for their help in preventing the marriage of a nine-year-old girl after child protection services failed to do so. If the crackdown on NGOs supporting local communities continues, it’s doubtful that the government can step up to fill this void.

The Egyptian government’s reckless, repressive actions also jeopardize the country’s future by leaving some of its most committed activists and social justice advocates disillusioned and terrified. One young activists told us, “I am dedicated to this work and after all this time, don’t want to stop. But I also don’t want to go to jail, and with this law, I think that’s a strong possibility.”

If you’d like to support activists in Egypt, please sign Amnesty International’s petition for Azza Soliman here.

Also, please see and share the joint-statement from CIVICUS denouncing the crackdown.

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