An Egyptian-American has been in pretrial detention in Egypt for more than 900 days—for helping street children. What is strange about Aya Hijazi's case is that she meets none of the obvious criteria for the typical victims of the Egyptian government’s crackdown on its own civil society. She was not politically active, she was not protesting, she was not publishing critical statements about the government on Facebook or Twitter, and she broke no law. Rather, she founded a nonprofit, in accordance with State regulations—the Belady Foundation—and was providing a home for homeless kids, feeding them, educating them, and reuniting them with their families. Of the seven trumped up charges against her, one of them is illegally forming a nonprofit association.
Egypt was once known for its vibrant civil society, with literally tens of thousands of nonprofits reaching all corners of the country. Law 84 of 2002, a Mubarak-era law, governed these nonprofits and even though it was not hailed as a good law, there was enough freedom—mostly through lack of enforcement by the state—for many organizations to establish and flourish throughout society.
But things have not been smooth sailing since the 2011 revolution.
In February 2012, following military-led raiding of several NGOs, judges convicted 43 nonprofit staff and sentenced them to between one and five years in prison. The crimes? Operating without a license and receiving foreign funds. This was the first phase of the “Foreign Funding” Case. In July 2014, the Ministry of Social Solidarity issued an ultimatum to all Egyptian and international nonprofits, ordering them to comply with the 2002 law within 45 days or face dissolution and possible criminal convictions or penalties. By September 2015, 500 nonprofits were closed down by the Ministry.
Even more concerning for the civil society, the government had been concocting a new NGO law that has been widely criticized for retaining all of the problematic provisions of Law 84 of 2002 and also giving the government veto power over nonprofits. With a court order obtained (under what showing is unclear and probably doesn’t matter anyway since the judiciary is not free to act independent of the state), the government would have the ability to close down organizations that it deems to be harmful to national security. The draft also gives the government the ability to monitor and interfere in a nonprofit’s internal governance and restrict its access to funding.
On September 8, the Egyptian government approved the draft law despite its rejection by many nonprofits and sent it to the State Council and to the House of Representatives for approval. If there were ever any hope that these institutions might act so as to stop such anti-democratic or oppressive laws, that hope was dashed in February when Egypt’s House of Representatives revealed itself to be the rubberiest of rubber stamps, approving almost 330 laws in two weeks in February. No legislative gridlock in Cairo. The wheels are greased here.
Egypt’s nonprofit enforcement claws sharpened even further when the Foreign Funding Case was gradually reopened since February 2016, now considered the second phase of criminal Case No. 173. This time, the investigation has led to a wave of interrogations, travel bans, and asset freezes against many local human rights nonprofits and individuals. The list is impressive:
- The director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Gamal Eid, has been subjected to a travel ban and asset freeze;
- The founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), Hossam Bahgat, subjected to the same;
- Staff from the Egyptian Democratic Academy also summoned for interrogation and subjected to a travel ban;
- An investigative judge, in March, summoned staff for investigation from the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Nazra for Feminist Studies, and from the United Group;
- The Ministry of Health ordered the dissolution of the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence for breach of license conditions.
The list goes on.
Criminal prosecution and closure is an imminent risk for at least thirty-seven local organizations and they are facing ominous charges: Up to life imprisonment for receiving foreign funding (Article 78 of the Penal Code); six months in prison and/or a 500 Egyptian pound fine for creating an unlicensed association and three months of prison or 300 Egyptian Pound fine for anyone who joins that association (Article 98(c)(1)); five years in prison and a fine up to 1000 pounds for those who receive money with the purpose of committing a crime (Article 98(d)); and six months in prison for failure to register the association (Article 76(2)(a)).
The repression of Egypt’s civil society is a big problem. Many of these organizations are the reason there is any reliable information about the real state of affairs in Egypt. A lot of what we know about the prolific use of torture, overcrowded prisons, extrajudicial killings, sectarian violence, police brutality, poverty, and the plight of street children is because of these nonprofits (and of course, what’s left of independent journalism in Egypt). It’s not like Egypt’s official mouthpieces would compensate for their loss; its stance has consistently been that “Egypt’s human rights should not have a western approach” or other vague statements denying widespread and systematic violations.
If Egypt’s version of human rights abided by the country's own criminal procedure laws, its constitution, and its international legal obligations, many critics would not be quietly shaking their heads in dismay at the unabashed lies of the Egyptian government. But those lies are coming at a cost, which thousands of Egyptians—and even some Americans—are paying in hundreds of days in prison, and worse.