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Egyptian council holds first ever meeting with human rights, civil society leaders

For the first time, Egypt’s state National Council for Human Rights met with independent human rights organizations, which have long been accused by the government of colluding with Western parties.
This picture taken during a government-guided tour shows police officers standing at the gate of Al-Qanatir women's prison, Qalyoubiya province, Egypt, Dec. 27, 2020.

CAIRO — The National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), an Egyptian state-owned institution whose members are appointed by the president, held the first meeting of a series of talks March 11 with human rights civil society organizations to discuss the human rights situation in the country and examine the organizations’ demands for the coming period.

The meeting is the first with civil society organizations, which have long been accused by the current regime of colluding with foreign parties.

According to various sources who spoke to Al-Monitor, the meeting was attended by Gamal Eid, a human rights activist and director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information; Mohamed Lotfy, executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF); Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights; Mohamed Abdel Salam, executive director of the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression; Mohamed Zaree, director of the Egypt Program at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies; and Ahmed Abdel Naby, executive director of the Regional Center for Rights and Liberties.

All the participants of this first-of-its-kind meeting between the NCHR and civil society organizations — with the exception of the ECRF — are being investigated in Case No. 173 of 2011, whereby travel bans and confiscation orders were issued against the organizations’ directors.

The case is also known as the “foreign funding" case, in which dozens of Egyptian human rights activists have been implicated and accused on charges of receiving suspicious funds. Defendants face travel bans and confiscation of funds and property.

During the meeting, the NCHR, represented by its chairperson Moushira Khattab and all its members, stated it is keen “to open channels of dialogue and communication with all civil society organizations and groups through a national platform, given their important role in upholding human rights.”

The statement continued, “The council, in its capacity of an independent national institution, is also keen on forging transparent, professional and objective ties with all civil society groups in general and human rights institutions in particular on a national ground."

Lotfy, the ECRF executive director, told Al-Monitor, “The meeting was positive, and the NCHR’s directors and members expressed their desire to embark on a new chapter with civil society groups in Egypt. We also expressed a similar desire, but we have raised several questions, and are waiting on the council to get back to us.”

He said, “Participants mainly demanded the release of human rights defenders belonging to civil society groups. Some of them have been behind bars in pre-trial detention for a long time, exceeding three years. They [the participants] also requested a review of the new NGO law [issued in 2019], which obliges organizations to officialize their situation, and places restrictions on the work of human rights institutions."

Zaree, director of the Egypt Program at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, who represented the center in the March 11 meeting, told Al-Monitor, “We touched on several impediments in the civil and human rights work in Egypt. We also discussed the national strategy for human rights launched by the Egyptian president months ago.”

Commenting on the national strategy, Zaree said, “Nothing in Egypt has changed yet in terms of human rights since the strategy was launched more than six months ago. This makes us question the Egyptian regime’s intention in bringing about real change.”

He said, “The absence of a true will or desire for change in the human rights landscape will only make any dialogue or meeting just for show."

During a major conference attended by Egyptian officials and diplomats in September 2021, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced the National Strategy for Human Rights in terms of civil society, which includes dozens of goals related to political, economic and cultural rights, in addition to human rights for women, children, people with disabilities, youth and the elderly, as well as education and capacity-building in this regard.

Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat, head of the NCHR’s Civil and Political Rights Committee, told Al-Monitor, “Human rights organizations and civil society groups play an effective role in promoting all political, civil and economic rights.”

He refused to delve into the details of the meeting, but said the NCHR “plans in the coming period to hold a series of meetings with all civil society actors, trade unions and various political parties from across the social spectrum to place all demands on the table.”

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