Cracking the code behind Egypt’s NGO crackdown

Mariz TadrosMariz Tadros photo mini

Why is the international community seemingly so shocked with the verdict issued yesterday by the Egyptian criminal court’s sentencing 43 NGO workers to prison? It is not as if the Egyptian legal code had suddenly been reformed and transformed after the Egyptian revolution of January 2011. Or that the powers that be have become any more open to any whistle blowing, international or otherwise, on their human rights records.

One of the NGO workers to receive a five year sentence was Nancy Okeil, an IDS alumni and a much esteemed former doctoral student in the Participation Team. Okeil had served as director of Freedom House’s office in Egypt. The ruling against her was made in absentia as she and many others had already left the county. Fortunately, however, the case is not over, since they have the right to appeal.

The case has been going on since December 2011 when authorities raided the premises of these organisations, confiscated some of their contents and closed them down.

From day one, the political nature of this case was apparent. First, because it involved some of the big names in international human rights organisations: Freedom House, National Democratic Institute and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. Second, because of the timing in which this whole case exploded onto the public scene: at that point (December 2011) the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) was still in power and was being challenged and contested for its human rights abuses by local and international organisations. It was also a time when SCAF’s relations with the US was soaring and becoming quite confrontational. Finally, this was a time in which the Islamists were slowly climbing to the apex of their power.

The court verdict was premised on the notion that these organisations were working without a license and receiving foreign funding. While the detailed legal justifications have yet to be released by court, Human Rights Watch explains that

‘The workers were charged under article 98(c)(1) of Egypt’s penal code, which states: ‘Anyone who creates or establishes or manages an association or organization or institution of any kind of an international character or a branch of an international organization without a license in the Egyptian Republic shall be punished with imprisonment for a period of not more than 6 months or with a fine of 500 EGP [US$82].’  The defendants were also charged under the penal code with receiving funds without authorization, which can carry a penalty of up to five years in prison.’

However, it is still highly debatable whether they have broken the law in the first place. The law is full of loopholes and is very opaque. It is unclear what evidence the court has  that the organisations were involved in foreign funded activities aimed at overthrowing the status quo (which is required to apply the five year penalty).

For an outsider, it may seem perplexing why such internationally reputed organisations were working in a politically volatile context such as Egypt without the necessary legal permits. But that is to assume that there are straightforward transparent legal pathways that actors and institutions can follow to be in the clear. This is not the case, the rules of the game are very different- and not just for international organisations but for a wide plethora of local actors too. For decades now, it has been the state security investigations apparatus (mabaheth amn al dawla) that governs who should not be allowed to work (clear enough), who should be registered and who should be allowed to work while awaiting registration (although of course officially there are laws and government bodies regulating that). The way it works is that the authorities give you the green light to work while your application is being processed. This arrangement is like a hanging sword above your neck- you have a non-physical carte blanche to go ahead and work, while knowing that at any time you can be charged with illegal conduct according to the written law of the land. Yet people did not have a choice but to go along with it. And it was not just international organizations, local organizations too would be told by the authorities to go ahead with their activities and suddenly find they are being incriminated. What is needed is the reform of the law to enhance freedoms and make processes transparent and accountable, but sadly, the proposed NGO law that is currently being discussed in Egypt is not going to take the country in that direction.

It is important to put the verdict that was issued against the NGO workers in the broader context of Egypt. Ultimately, the court case has captured the international media’s attention because of the high profile western organisations involved, evident in the western media’s coverage that puts the international workers at the centre, and pays minimal attention to the Egyptians involved, see for example this Guardian article . But the fact of the matter is this: the human rights situation has never been worse in Egypt (and we thought it had reached rock bottom under Mubarak). New prisons are being built. Thousands of political dissidents are being incarcerated. Clampdowns on the independent media critical of the government is ongoing, and women who dare to protest against the regime face sexual assault and torture. For further evidence, read this recent paper.

The sad part is that despite the documentation and evidence attesting to the level of repression exercised by the Egyptian government against any political undesirables (though local forms of resistance are as strong as ever), many western governments and policy makers prefer to turn a blind eye (opening it only when it involves their own organisations). Many western governments (and donors) have refused to publicly acknowledge the level of human rights abuses currently witnessed in Egypt. The discourse among many western policy actors is that support for the current government is necessary to bring about stability. It is the same discourse that was deployed vis-a-vis western support for the Mubarak regime. Where was stability then, where is stability today?

Mariz Tadros is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Read other recent blogs by Mariz Tadros:

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