Independent civil society groups may be forced to shut down in Egypt, further limiting the space for civic engagement and human rights activism in the country, Amnesty International said today, as the deadline for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to register under the repressive 2019 NGO law expires.
On 5 April 2023, Nevine al-Kabaj, Egypt’s Minister of Social Solidarity, said NGOs that have not registered under the 2019 NGO law by 12 April 2023 risk being dissolved. Her statement ignored mounting calls from both local and international NGOs, as well as UN experts, to repeal or amend the law to ensure it complies with international standards on the right to freedom of association. Al-Kabaj also indicated that no further extensions would be granted.
“For years, the Egyptian authorities have stifled independent civil society and subjected human rights defenders to a catalogue of attacks, including arbitrary detention, politically motivated criminal prosecutions, travel bans, asset freezes, unlawful surveillance and other forms of harassment,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“With the long-awaited ‘National Dialogue’ with the opposition due to begin on 3 May, the authorities should immediately retract their threat to dissolve unregistered NGOs. Instead, authorities should work with NGOs on establishing a legal framework that enables them to carry out their vital work without fear of reprisals and meets Egypt’s international obligations to uphold the right to freedom of association.”
The 2019 NGO law gives the authorities overbroad powers to oversee the registration, activities, funding and dissolution of NGOs. It restricts the activities of NGOs by limiting their work to “societal development”, a vaguely defined concept which could be used to effectively ban human rights work. It further prohibits NGOs from conducting research and publishing their findings without prior authorization from the government. The Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), one of Egypt’s oldest human rights organizations, suspended its operations in January 2022 after 18 years, citing the repressive environment and its inability to carry out human rights work under the draconian law.
Unjust prosecutions and harassment
Over the past nine years, the Egyptian authorities have intensified their unjust prosecution and unlawful detention of NGO workers to obstruct human rights work. In the decade-long criminal investigation into the legitimate work of civil society organizations in Case 173/2011, known as the “foreign funding case”, at least 15 NGO workers remain under investigation, including Mohamed Zaree, Egypt Programme Director at the Cairo Institute of Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), Aida Seif al-Dawla, Magda Adly and Suzan Fayad from the al-Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture, Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), and Gamal Eid, director of the now-closed ANHRI. They remained banned from travelling overseas, and their assets have been frozen.
Several NGO workers also remain unjustly imprisoned for their legitimate human rights work. Mohamed Baker, founder and director of Adalah Centre for Rights and Freedoms, has been arbitrarily detained since 29 September 2019. In November 2021, he was sentenced to four years in prison following a grossly unfair trial by an emergency court on charges of “spreading false news”. The charges are related to reports by the Adalah Centre for Rights and Freedoms on detention conditions and the use of the death penalty in Egypt.
On 5 March 2023, an emergency court convicted Ezzat Ghoniem, founder of the human rights group Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms, and 29 others, on absurd charges stemming from their human rights work or peaceful dissent, and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from five years to life, following an unfair trial.
“The international community must call on the Egyptian authorities to end their repressive campaign against independent NGOs. They should urgently release the human rights defenders who are unjustly languishing in prison, quash all unfair convictions, drop Case 173 once and for all, and lift the travel bans and asset freezes inflicted on NGO workers. A vibrant civil society is essential for addressing Egypt’s economic challenges and promoting human rights,” said Philip Luther.
On 5 April 2023, the Minister of Social Solidarity announced that 35,653 NGOs had registered under the 2019 NGO Law. Previously, the authorities stated that there were 52,500 civic groups in the country.
Most prominent human rights NGOs in Egypt, including those that provide pro-bono legal aid to victims of human rights violations, operate as not-for-profit companies or law firms and risk dissolution for failing to register under the 2019 NGO law. Those registered under the NGO law have consistently reported that the authorities have either delayed or refused to approve their funding and projects.