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Egypt drops decade-old charges against NGOs

An Egyptian investigative judge recently dropped charges against 20 NGOs involved in the 2011 foreign funding case that has raised global condemnation, in a move seen as a gesture of goodwill to the United States in order to unfreeze military aid.
Protesters are pictured during a global solidarity demonstration for political change in Egypt in Trafalgar square, London, United Kingdom, Feb. 12, 2011. The event was organized by Amnesty international and the ITUC, Human Rights Watch, the NUS, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network and the Arab Program for Human Rights Activists.

Judicial authorities in Egypt recently dropped charges against 20 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) involved in the 2011 case, known as the “foreign funding” case, a few months following a similar decision in December 2020 to conclude investigations with another 20 NGOs in the same case.

The decision of the investigating judge, Ali Mokhtar, on March 30 settled the investigation for lack of grounds for a criminal case or insufficient evidence.

The new ruling involves removing the names of those included in the travel ban, watch lists and asset freeze.

Mokhtar said in a statement following the ruling that civil society plays a pivotal role in sustainable development. Mokhtar urged all Egyptian and foreign organizations, groups, associations, unions and entities to immediately settle their situation with the authorities as per the law.

Mokhtar is the latest investigating judge succeeding several previous judges who were tasked with examining the report of the fact-finding committee that was formed according to the decision of the Cabinet in July 2011 to look into the case, a few months after the January 25 Revolution, which toppled late President Hosni Mubarak.

Mokhtar, however, did not specify the total number of organizations involved in the case. But according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an independent rights organization included in the case, 37 organizations were mentioned in the report of the fact-finding committee.

The case events date back to December 2011, when security forces raided the headquarters of several civil society organizations and confiscated computers and other equipment, funds and documents. Later, these organizations faced charges of receiving illicit foreign funds and using them to conduct banned activities.

The case was then divided into two parts. The first part dealt with foreign organizations operating in Egypt. In December 2018, the case was settled when an Egyptian court acquitted 43 employees, including US citizens, Germans and other nationalities, who were accused of receiving foreign funding. Amnesty International described back then this move as a step in the right direction and dismissed the case as “bogus” targeting human rights defenders for merely doing their legitimate job.

The foreign NGOs that were included in the case and operating in Egypt included Freedom House, International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute, International Center for Journalists and the German Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.

The other part of the case involved local NGOs, and investigations are still ongoing. The authorities banned dozens of activists working in these organizations from traveling and froze their assets pending investigation.

These organizations include the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, Nazra for Feminist Studies, El-Nadeem against Torture and Violence, Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal AssistanceEgyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and Hisham Mubarak Law Center.

Mohamed Mandour, an Egyptian researcher at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP), considered that the decision to shelve the investigations against several organizations is a message to the West and the United States mainly, and does not necessarily express a change in Egyptian politics toward civil society organizations.

Mandour, who monitors the situation of human rights and civil society in Egypt, told Al-Monitor that the decision can be explained in light of the reforms the Egyptian government adopted during the era of US President Donald Trump with the aim to unfreeze part of the military aid provided by the United States to Egypt.

In August 2017, the Trump administration decided to deprive Egypt of nearly $100 million in aid and cut off another $195 million, demanding that Cairo improves its human rights and democracy records.

The US decision was based on reservations regarding the Egyptian NGO Law, which regulates the work of NGOs and was ratified by Sisi in May 2017. The law was widely seen as part of a growing crackdown on the opposition. Sisi, however, reconsidered the law and called for it to be revised in November 2018.

The Trump administration reversed in July 2018 the decision to withhold aid to Egypt.

Mandour noted that Egypt has formally abided by what the Trump administration wanted, as it changed the NGO Law of 2017 and issued a new law in 2019, whose executive regulations were issued later in January 2021. He added, “Although the new law was introduced with some reforms, it still retains the authoritarian essence of the old law in restricting the freedom of work of NGOs.”

On March 12, the United States and 30 other countries condemned, in a joint statement announced at the United Nations Human Rights Council, Egypt’s human rights record, calling for an end to the prosecution of activists and journalists, and for granting space for civil society, including human rights defenders. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry rejected the statement and dismissed it as based on inaccurate information about the human rights situation in Egypt.

Mandour said that it is difficult to consider the conclusion of investigations against some organizations in the case of foreign funding the beginning of a new chapter between the state and civil society organizations in Egypt, saying, “The state’s stance on civil society is clear and has not changed yet.”

Mandour added that President Joe Biden’s administration has reintroduced human rights and democracy issues into its foreign policy in parallel with the US Congress linking the disbursement of more than $300 million in aid to Egypt — out of a total of $1.3 billion earmarked for Egypt — within the 2021 government spending budget to Cairo improving its human rights situation. He said that Egypt is trying to use the same method it used in the Trump era by trying to show progress in the civil society and human rights situation, while the reality is different. Mandour noted this explains the authorities’ conclusion of investigations against several civil society organizations, which do not include the organizations whose work the state restricts daily and whose employees it suffocates.

In November 2020, Egyptian authorities arrested three human rights activists from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights — namely Gasser Abdel Razek, the initiative’s executive director; Mohamed Bashir, the administrative director; and Karim Emara, the director of the criminal justice unit — on charges that include belonging to a terrorist group and spreading false news. The authorities were forced to release them pending investigation after days of widespread international condemnation.

Mandour said that the Egyptian administration wants to improve the relationship with the Biden administration by introducing formal reforms in the situation of human rights and civil society without affecting its hegemony and tight grip on civil society in Egypt. It wants to avoid an expected freeze on part of the military aid, and to benefit from the US role in the faltering Nile dam negotiations by pressuring Ethiopia to reach an agreement before July, which is the date of the second filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that Addis Ababa is building on the Blue Nile — the main tributary of the Nile River — he concluded.

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