Egypt NGOs ensnared in shifting legal system

A gavel. Photo by: Allen and Allen / CC BY

CAIRO — When Egyptian police showed up at Azza Soliman’s door, she was angry but not at all surprised. Soliman, a prominent human rights lawyer and the founder of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, knew the order was coming.

The judge who called for her arrest in December had already frozen the bank accounts of Soliman and her company, Lawyers for Justice and Peace, without giving a reason. “I tried to withdraw money, and they told me there was a verdict against me,” she recalled.

Security officials later informed Soliman that the judge, Hisham Abdel-Maged, wanted to meet with her. She refused, saying that he should follow established legal channels. Two days later, police showed up at her home. Soliman was briefly detained at the police station, then released after a public outcry. She is still unable to use her bank account and is subject to a travel ban.

Civil space in peril

Closed offices, seized records, bureaucratic delays, and new laws targeting their work —  these are just some of the ways that governments are cracking down against aid groups across the globe.

In this series, Devex will examine this shrinking civic space and go behind the scenes to understand why and how NGOs are being singled out — and how the impact resonates far beyond the borders of those countries involved.

“The trauma of this impacts my health,” said Soliman, in reference to her arrest. “I can’t sleep or eat properly. It affects everything.”

Egyptian civil society organizations have been subjected to an unprecedented crackdown under the regime of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, one that has worsened considerably in the past year. Like Soliman, prominent individuals working in civil society have found their bank accounts frozen, while others are subject to travel bans. But what has marked this renewed and brutal crackdown more than any period before has been the use of the legal system, an organ supposedly independent from the state, to shutter NGOs and target their staff.

"Egypt's judiciary is becoming increasingly politicized,” said Mai el-Sadany, an expert on Egypt’s judicial system at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “The security apparatus serves the benefit of the regime, the legislature continues to issue problematic laws that further constrain the rights of individuals, and the media vilifies the work of many in the civil society community.”

The past year has seen the Egyptian authorities cast a broad net in targeting NGO activity. The reopening of an infamous court case taking aim at NGO funding and registration has been accompanied by sweeping new laws cracking down on NGO activity, with the government increasingly seeking to sanction their work. The result has been the punishment of not just organizations but of their staff as well.

Shrinking space

The crackdown on civil society organizations began not long after the Egyptian revolution of 2011. That December, Egyptian authorities raided the offices of 17 organizations and accused them of operating illegally. When the case reached court in 2013, 43 Egyptian and international NGO workers were given prison sentences of up to five years, largely in absentia. The same case, reopened by a Cairo court, continues to haunt civil society activity in the country today.

A far broader and even more vicious crackdown followed Case 173, also known as the “foreign funding case,” after President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi seized power in July 2013. The sweeping lawsuit accuses NGOs of illegally receiving foreign funds and operating without proper registration. Many organizations, notably Freedom House and Human Rights Watch, closed their offices in the country following the initial verdict in Case 173.

The case was officially reopened in 2016. At least 37 organizations are accused of receiving “illegal” foreign funds, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. These organizations and their staff have been subjected to raids, interrogations, and arrests, as well as an ongoing wave of court cases that often prevent NGOs from carrying out their day-to-day work.

In some instances, Case 173 has emboldened government ministries to forcibly close organizations altogether. In February 2016, for example, the Al Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, which works with torture victims, said its office door was officially sealed shut by Egypt’s Ministry of Health. The Ministry later stated that the center had violated the terms of its operating license, which the center denies.  

A new reality

As many NGOs grapple with the renewed legal threats from Case 173, the ground has shifted under their feet. In May, Sisi ratified a law requiring NGOs to register with a new government body, the National Foreign NGOs Regulation Apparatus, intended to sanction their activity as well as oversee their funding. The new law also restricts NGO activity to developmental and social work as defined by the government, a clause that many campaigners see as targeting organizations that monitor torture and forced disappearances.

An estimated 46,000 NGOs now have a year to comply with the new law or face dissolution by a court.

Meanwhile, over the past year, the government has conducted raids on the premises of at least three NGOs. Many organizations had registered as businesses or law firms in order to evade civil society regulations. Yet that too has made them targets.

In October 2016 the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, an organization tracking enforced disappearances, reported a raid on its premises by a group of officials purporting to be from Egypt’s Ministry of Investment, including at least one undercover policeman. The authorities forcefully searched case files and computers, and demanded to see particular members of staff. In September this year, officials from the Ministry of Investment returned, accompanied by national security officials and a police van, according to statements from ECRF. They attempted to close ECRF’s office doors with a wax seal.

“The first raid was a message to stop what you’re doing or else,” said Ahmed Abdullah, director of ECRF’s board of trustees. “They want to erase ECRF. This threat is ongoing, as they can come back at any time.”

Abdullah insists that ECRF’s work will continue. The raid has deterred the organization from conducting sensitive meetings in its offices, and acts as a barrier to both important group work and storing key sensitive documents on its premises. Staff worry that public meetings are likely to be surveilled.

“It seems our suffering is endless,” he said.

Ill-equipped to fight back

El-Sadany said the Egyptian authorities are both using and violating existing legal structures to target NGOs.

"There is no doubt that Egyptian authorities are entrenching laws that exist in violation of international principles and even Egypt's Constitution, as well as targeting their crackdown disproportionately against independent civil society organizations,” said el-Sadany. She said the particular focus on foreign funding was intended to tarnish NGOs’ reputations “by claiming — falsely — that these organizations have suspicious ties to external bodies or are serving the interests of a foreign power.”

Egyptian organizations lack legal recourse to fight back against this crackdown, she said, in large part due to the questionable independence of the judiciary.

Instead, NGOs and the workers affected are forced to lay low and operate as quietly as possible. But this can prove challenging, especially in a climate of constant restrictions on civil liberties and human rights.

Soliman, for example, has lodged appeals against her travel ban as well as the freezing of her accounts. Both cases are still in the appeals courts. Since then, a second judge has produced a second order, accusing her of personal and professional tax evasion.

The result is a tangle of legal battles that Soliman is constantly fighting, seemingly without end. “They want to take a lot of my energy,” she said.  

Even for Soliman, a trained lawyer, the constant battle against a punitive legal system makes her feel that there is no longer any justice at all. “I’ve been a lawyer for 26 years. This is ridiculous, the feeling that there is no law in Egypt. It’s scary,” she said.

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About the author

  • Ruth Michaelson

    Ruth Michaelson is a journalist based in Cairo. She reports regularly for the Guardian as well as Newsweek, Foreign Policy and other outlets. She has reported from across the Middle East since 2012. She is a 2014 graduate of the Toni Stabile Centre for Investigative Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School.