Family and friends of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, chair of Egypt’s Ibn Khaldoun Center for Developmental Studies, breathed a huge sigh of relief on August 10, when Ibrahim was finally released on bail by prosecution authorities. The arrest at gunpoint of this internationally renowned pro-democracy activist and academic in his home on June 30 deeply shocked all of Egypt’s civil society activists. Yet, in the context of continued government harassment of non-governmental organizations, Ibrahim’s release hardly represents an unqualified victory.

During his six-week detention, a smear campaign in the government press accused Ibrahim of financial corruption, accepting foreign funding for research “harmful to Egypt’s interests,” and even spying for the US. The government has not yet filed formal charges against Ibrahim or any Ibn Khaldoun employee. But many activists believe the Egyptian authorities have achieved their major aim: to discredit all NGO work that seeks to challenge the regime, including the independent committee planned by Ibrahim and other public figures to monitor the November parliamentary elections.

Same Old Accusations

The themes of this smear campaign–corruption and dubious links with foreign governments–are familiar to Egypt’s human rights activists. In December 1998, Hafez Abu Saada, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), was held for two weeks in the wake of an EOHR report detailing police brutality directed against Coptic residents of al-Kosheh, an Upper Egyptian village. Authorities claimed that a $25,000 check from the British parliament to EOHR for women’s legal aid was payment for the report. An international campaign secured Abu Saada’s release.

Prosecutors resurrected Abu Saada’s case in February 2000. This time, Abu Saada was charged according to a 1992 military decree that criminalizes receiving funds from abroad without official permission. The “offense” carries a penalty of 7-15 years in prison, with no appeal. Following another international campaign, the authorities assured Abu Saada in March that the charges would not be pursued. But the case was never officially closed. The arrest of a high-profile figure like Ibrahim raises fears that international pressure may not stop authorities from going after Abu Saada again.

Unsurprisingly, the threat of imprisonment has deterred the EOHR and other organizations from accepting funds from abroad without official permission. The Ministry of Social Affairs, which monitors charitable donations, has forbidden the EOHR from taking donations because it is not yet registered with the ministry as an NGO. Recent EOHR attempts to register were “delayed” by the ministry on July 30 at the request of “security agencies”–a delay without legal precedent. Even officially registered NGOs are not guaranteed permission to receive donations from abroad. One year ago, the Association for Health and Environmental Development was refused the second installment of a Canadian grant for a health survey in a working-class neighborhood of Cairo. No official reason was given, but it is possible that the government was punishing the association for participating in the coalition against last year’s highly restrictive amendments to the law regulating NGO work. In addition to stopping funds, Egyptian authorities occasionally resort to more coercive tactics. In January, the Ministry of Education fined 55 teachers who participated in a seminar organized by the Group for Democratic Development on peaceful conflict resolution in the classroom, even though the teachers attended the seminar during school vacation. The message to the public is clear: don’t go near organizations that talk about democracy.

The Foreign Funding Dilemma

The government’s ability to stop funds to rights advocacy groups seriously threatens the continuation of their work. Foreign donations have become the lifeblood of the human rights community, which has so far been unable to tap into any transparent domestic funding sources. (Anonymous local donations have been offered in the past, but rejected by most organizations on legal grounds.) The only alternative is to rely on membership dues and volunteers. Yet in 1993 the EOHR decided to accept foreign money precisely because local volunteer resources could not cope with the volume of complaints of human rights violations flooding through its doors. Given these pressures, the regime can stop “undesirable” NGO activity simply by squeezing an organization’s finances.

In the face of Western governments’ unpopular policies toward the Palestinian and Iraqi peoples, and the Western colonial legacy, the government can easily tar NGOs by associating them with Western funders. Since Western money funds work on human rights, women’s rights and “democratization”–activities that encroach upon the government’s sovereignty–it is even more suspicious. Meanwhile, the government regularly receives enormous foreign aid packages, a contradiction that is largely unexplored.

Fears of Cooptation

Arbitrary harassment of a few individual human rights activists and their organizations has intimidated the whole NGO community. Suspecting a lack of reason behind the authorities’ actions, activists are not sure what the authorities will do next. Will they officially charge Ibrahim? Logic says no–Ibrahim’s defense team would surely question the government’s human rights record and dependence on foreign funding in a heavily publicized trial. But logic also said that the government wouldn’t arrest the high-profile Ibrahim in the first place.

Bankrupt, harassed, discredited and divided over strategy, the human rights community is in flux. Their safest path is to desist from issuing damning reports on human rights in Egypt until the regime calms down. Some activists may abandon dangerous NGO work to be coopted onto the newly created governmental National Women’s Council or the proposed National Human Rights Council.

Some well-established human rights figures have been invited by the government to discuss the mandate of the human rights council, but no official body has yet emerged. Activists disagree over whether to cooperate with the governmental human rights body when it comes into being. Meanwhile, some activists have already joined the National Women’s Council, established under the auspices of Suzanne Mubarak in March. The council, supported by the president, promises to strongly influence policy making concerning women. But those activists who have not joined the council see it as a means for usurping NGO activities in the field of women’s rights. Council plans to encourage women voter registration and training women candidates for parliament duplicate existing NGO projects. Moreover, the idea of a national umbrella for women’s rights activists is very close to prominent feminist Nawal El-Saadawi’s project to establish a National Women’s Union. El-Saadawi’s organization has been refused official recognition for the past year.

Resisting an Embattled Regime

On the other hand, Ibrahim has announced that he will continue working: the nongovernmental elections monitoring committee will still be formed. In light of the funding squeeze, some activists are considering moving away from exclusive reliance on foreign donations and trying anew to build a dues-paying membership base and attract volunteers. This move might induce some intellectuals who left human rights organizations over the “foreign funding question” to return. More importantly, the government would be deprived of an important weapon for discrediting advocacy NGOs. But as long as the legislation on the books denies civil liberties, including freedom of association and the freedom of associations to collect funds, advocates of human rights and democracy will face restrictions on their work, including active recruitment of new members.

Human rights and advocacy organizations are only one opposition element facing renewed government harassment. More Muslim Brothers have been arrested, the Islamist-oriented Labor Party has been dissolved, Bar Association elections have been delayed and many journalists remain in jail.

The regime’s willingness to harass the opposition seems directly proportional to the magnitude of its own institutions’ mistakes. In the last few months alone, the government has been repeatedly embarrassed. In June, the Supreme Constitutional Court struck down last year’s NGO law, and the following month it declared the People’s Assembly unconstitutionally elected. Also in June, four ruling party parliamentarians were found guilty in the biggest corruption case of the decade. The government faces unrelenting criticism of its economic record, with no end in sight to the current liquidity crisis. In the November elections, the ruling party will not be able to rig the usual sweeping majority for itself, as the judiciary will monitor all polling stations for the first time in Egyptian history. A revamped human rights movement could give the embattled regime an even bigger headache.

How to cite this article:

Nicola Pratt "Egypt Harasses Human Rights Activists," Middle East Report Online, August 17, 2000.

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