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Egypt cracks down on human rights groups

As a Human Rights Watch delegation is denied entry to Egypt, the country's own human and civil rights groups face the threat of dissolution by the government.
A riot police officer fires tear gas during clashes with student supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and deposed President Mohamed Mursi at the Al-Azhar University campus in Cairo's Nasr City district, May 9, 2014. The protesters marched towards Rabaa square, closing the roads, during a demonstration by members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the pro-Mursi Anti-Coup National Alliance against the military, interior ministry and presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi,, the former army chief who deposed th

On Aug. 12, a special delegation from Human Rights Watch was to visit Cairo. However, Egypt's government had other plans.

The organization was to deliver a briefing alongside the release of its comprehensive report on the Egyptian security forces' “clearance” of Rabia al-Adawiya and other Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins last year that resulted in the deaths of at least 1,150 people.

On Aug. 10, when Human Rights Watch attempted to enter the country, the Egyptian authorities held director Ken Roth, head of Middle East and North Africa division Sarah Leah Whitson and fellow Omar Shakir up at the Cairo airport and refused them access to the country. The Interior Ministry claimed that the holdup was due to nothing more than a failure on the organization's part to attain proper visas before travelling, and that it had informed Human Rights Watch that its delegation must get travel papers in advance.

However, Whitson confirmed to Al-Monitor that the organization followed the same procedure that it has “for decades” in Egypt, and had received no contact from the Interior Ministry prior to the trip.

The report has been released regardless and its indictments of the highest level Egyptian officials, including President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, for authorizing pre-planned mass killings that rivalled that of China in Tiananmen Square have if anything been magnified by the authorities' actions.

The barring of Human Rights Watch was no aberration. According to senior representatives of Egyptian human rights groups, the authorities are now following a new policy toward them that could end their activities.

“What we're currently facing is the police storming our offices and arresting us at any moment,” said Mohamed Zaree, head the Egypt program at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) and a leading human rights worker.

Egypt is home to a range of Egyptian civil society organizations like CIHRS that have incurred the government's ire because of their criticism of state policy, especially toward dissent, but their legal position has always been uncertain. Now a new “draft law on associations” being weighed by the government is poised to fully criminalize their operations.

“This law criminalizes groups and associations that haven't been approved by the government,” Zaree explained, “and we can't be officially registered because the government-approved groups are controlled — they can't work properly.”

He explained that there are a strict set of state-defined rules that government-approved groups have to adhere to, which include a ban on any activity that could “harm public unity” and that make effective human rights monitoring all but impossible.

To make matters worse, on July 18, Egypt's Minister for Social Solidarity Ghada Waly posted a notice in Egypt's state-owned al-Ahram newspaper warning “entities carrying out civil society work” that they will be dissolved within the next 45 days.

“The government sees this as a great opportunity to silence any critical voices, which it portrays as against the interests of Egypt,” said Gasser Abdel Rizak, the head of the Egyptian Initiative on Personal Rights.

“We are seeing horrendous rights violations of a magnitude probably not seen in Egypt before, and it isn't sustainable. By documenting these abuses we're trying to help those in power to make the right decisions and not shut down completely all dissent — that is in Egypt's interests,” Abdel Rizak told Al-Monitor.

On Aug. 14, Egypt's Ministry for Social Solidarity issued a statement emphasizing its "commitment to come up with a final draft that is in line with the 2014 Constitution" and claiming the final form of the law on nongovernmental organizations "would respond to the needs of the Egyptian people and fulfill their aspirations as well as ensure their cohesion."

Human rights campaigners in Egypt have long faced allegations from conservative forces that their work is little more than defamation of the country and its interests.

“The conditions for carrying out human rights work are already not good at all,” said Ahmed Kheir, executive director of Egypt's Support for Information Technology Center, an organization that monitors the media and campaigns for freedom of information.

“People working on highlighting human and civil rights issues are shunned by the media and the government and labeled as Muslim Brotherhood fronts or supporters of terrorism, even though they said the same things when [Mohammed] Morsi was president,” he told Al-Monitor.

Egypt's rights groups regularly meet with diplomats from international embassies in Cairo, including the United States and European missions, during which they have expressed their fears about the near future.

However, little help has been forthcoming. Rights groups say while Western diplomats claim they are sympathetic to the causes of the rights groups, they are more concerned with maintaining strategic relationships with Egypt's ruling regime, and these are based on security, stability and energy interests.

The British Embassy in Cairo told Al-Monitor that the British government supports the role of civil society organizations as part of a secure, prosperous and democratic Egypt and that it has made clear the importance of upholding human rights written into Egypt's constitution.

However, the rights groups do not feel they are sufficiently supported, and say human rights abuses are not high on the agendas of Western governments.

“We think there has been a shameful response from the the Western governments and we're afraid that the security forces will see their silence as a green light,” said Zaree.

CIHRS is coordinating the groups to try to fight the government's plans, and it has formally submitted a letter signed by 23 Egyptian human rights organizations to Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahleb in an attempt to elicit a change in policy. But when asked what the group thinks its chances are, the reply is “not good.”

“We know the old [Hosni] Mubarak regime officials were very scared by what happened in 2011 … and under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, there were similar attempts to get rid of us right after the uprising,” said Zaree.

“It's like the state now is trying to shut down the avenues of expression that Egyptians created and that led to the January 25 revolution.”