This is an introduction to a series of interviews by Mada Masr with human rights workers in Egypt that attempts to situate the struggle for rights within the context of a larger movement and the contest over political space.
Many human rights workers have felt targeted by the government after a warning was issued in state newspapers last summer requesting that all civil society groups register in accordance with the NGO Law, or else incur legal repercussions.
The 2002 NGO law in question is widely seen as giving the state full powers over NGOs and their funding, as well as other repressive measures.
Shortly after, a Penal Code amendment broadened the scope of criminal use of foreign funds and intensified the penalty for their receipt.
Activities stalled, some organizations shut down, some relocated to other countries and others downsized their operations. But this is not new to the community of civil society in general and the rights movement in particular.
A brief timeline: A people’s battle
The battle for human rights in Egypt is not new. Iconic individuals and organizations were forging the way as early as the 1950s and 60s, when human rights as a paradigm started slowly slipping into public consciousness.
Movement leaders remember iconic rights lawyer Ahmed Nabil al-Hilaly as the “Saint of the Egyptian Left.” Hilaly was born to a bourgeois family, with his father, Ahmed Naguib al-Hilaly, being the last prime minister under the rule of King Farouk.
As he founded the Egyptian Communist Movement, the Democratic Movement of National Liberation and The People’s Socialist Party, Hilaly’s main struggle was the fight for social justice. His support for labor and worker’s rights led to his detention twice under President Gamal Abdel Nasser: once in 1959, when he spent five years in detention and in 1965, when he was jailed for another four years. His book, “The Freedom of Thought and Religion: This is the Case,” has been frequently described as a beacon for human rights lawyers who have followed him.
In the 1980s, Hilaly defended Islamists who were tried in former President Hosni Mubarak’s prisons following the assassination of late President Anwar al-Sadat. Hilaly also defended railway workers, who organized a major strike in 1986 and were tried by the High Emergency State Security Court, and subsequently acquitted. He also represented the families of the victims of a train that was set ablaze in 2002 in Upper Egypt, when he famously said: “The state is the first defendant.”
The versatile nature of the cases that he worked on set the stage for various human rights battles in the years that followed.
Hilaly was joined in the fight by prominent rights lawyers Ahmed Seif al-Islam and Hisham Mubarak, who both laid the foundations of a strong network of human rights’ organizations that entered Egypt’s civil society during the early 1990s.
Mubarak founded in 1994 the first organization fully dedicated to defending human rights in Egypt, “The Office of Legal Aid for Human Rights.” He passed away in 1998, leaving Seif al-Islam to continue the work and establish in 1999 another leading rights organization to offer victims of human rights abuses legal support.
The Hisham Mubarak Law Center became a cornerstone of the human rights movement in Egypt. With two branches in Cairo and Aswan, the center was at the forefront of defending the rights of political prisoners, protesters and torture victims. During the 2011 revolution, intelligence forces raided the center’s downtown Cairo headquarters on February 4, along with other rights organizations.
Before the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights was one of the early institutional homes for the human rights movement, and is primarily concerned with documenting human rights violations. The center was founded in 1985 by prominent human rights defendants Hilaly, Naguib Fakhry, Mohamed al-Sayed Saeed and Hany Shukrallah, among others.
In 1993, Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence was established by professor of Psychology at Ain Shams University Aida Seif al-Dawla to offer psychological and legal aid to those who experienced rights abuses, including torture and sexual violence. In 2001, accompanied by what the center described as increasing rates of gender-based violence, a separate unit was established to work with survivors of sexual and domestic violence.
Similarly, The Human Rights Association for the Assistance of Prisoners was also established in 1998 to campaign for the advancement of prisoners’ rights and the reform of punitive institutions. One of the association’s major interventions was to focus on cases of police torture against prisoners in police stations and prisons as the main battleground for human rights.
The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies was founded in 1993 and has more of a regional scope. It has engaged in much of the research-based advocacy for policy changes with regards to human rights-related decisions, legislation and policies, with a bent toward international human rights law.
In 2002, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) started to lead the battle against human rights violations in the field of personal rights, primarily sexual and religious rights. EIPR was established by Hossam Bahgat, who was then a fresh graduate from the faculty of Economics and Political Science. Back then, he had borrowed LE5000 from Seif al-Islam to set up the initiative, which has grown to become a leading organization in Egypt, covering a variety of issues and widening the scope of the struggle for human rights.
In 2004, the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) was established by rights lawyer Gamal Eid, to campaign against the violations of freedom of expression in Egypt and the Arab world. Similarly, the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) was established in 2006, with the aim of equipping citizens with the means to defend their right to information, as well as spaces for creative thought online and in universities and media.
The women’s rights movement in Egypt has also played a central role in the fight. Activist Mozn Hassan started Nazra for Feminist Studies in 2007 to establish a new language for women’s rights in Egypt. One of the organization’s key interventions has been the creation of a research-based approach to women’s rights.
Before Nazra, the New Woman Foundation and the Alliance for Arab Women were established in 1986 by activists who were part of the 1970s students movement, such as Fatema Khafaga, Hoda Badran and Amal Abdel Hady. In 1995, the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance was established to offer legal aid for the survivors of gender-based violence.
In 2008, alongside the Mahalla factory labor strike against unfair wages, the Front to Defend Egypt’s Protesters was formed, including a number of rights organizations and individuals to support publicly engaged citizens in their fight for peaceful assembly and protest.
In 2009, with ongoing privatization and associated crony capitalism under Mubarak, leading leftist rights lawyer Khalid Ali founded the Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights, consolidating the battle for economic and social rights as part of the movement. The center was at the forefront of a legal battle to expose corruption in the privatization contracts of many state-owned factories and companies, including retailer Omar Effendi, the Nile Cotton Weaving Company and several other factories, resulting in the major return of assets to public ownership.
One of the major victories of the organization was a court ruling to nullify a government deal to sell state-owned land to businessman Hisham Talaat Mostafa to build the luxurious real estate project Madinaty. Ali also, through the center, managed in 2010 to win a court ruling obliging the state to commit to enforcing a minimum wage.
Alongside the establishing of organizations, laws were drafted by various ruling governments to monitor and control the human rights movement.
The different versions of Egypt’s NGO Law over time reveal a desire by the state to dominate the space formulated by human rights groups, rather than to organize structures to facilitate a working relationship.
Court cases have been used to limit the power of the movement.
Law 32 (1964)
Law 32 (1964) was one of many forms of state control over public space under Gamal Abdel Nasser. The law prohibited civil society organizations from working on religious or political issues. It also established a monitoring authority, appointed by the government, that was tasked with overseeing the activities of these organizations and monitoring their finances.
This Law also enabled the government to dissolve NGOs if the monitoring authority was not informed about its members, board, and location. It also imposed wide restrictions on the foreign funding of NGOs.
Law 153 (1999)
The Nasser-era law continued to stifle civil society organizations until 1999, when the government responded to national and international pressure to annul it, issuing Law 153 (1999), which only lasted for a few years before it was deemed unconstitutional.
Egyptian rights groups campaigned against this Law as a reproduction of the 1964 ruling, while international rights organizations viewed it as not going far enough to ensure the independence of civil society organizations in Egypt.
The Supreme Constitutional Court viewed the court as violating a constitutional right to organization, assembly and association.
Law 84 (2002)
In the early 2000s, which were marked by the rise of the business class associated with Gamal Mubarak, former President Hosni Mubarak’s son and once potential heir to the presidency, civil society was again at the forefront of a battle targeting its independence. This battle intensified after human rights organizations who were largely fighting against police brutality, torture, social and economic rights, joined the ranks of dissent against Mubarak and his regime.
The law imposes harsh prison sentences against organizations involved in civil action without prior permission, and gives the government the power to dissolve NGOs. It also prohibits NGOs from practicing political or syndicate activity. Many NGOs, especially those working in the human rights field, have evaded the law by registering as legal firms.
After the January 25 revolution, a new tactic was taken by the government to subdue and control the work of rights organizations. The Ministry of Social Solidarity issued an ultimatum in the summer of 2014, published in the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper. According to the ultimatum, all organizations engaging in civil work without registering under Law 84 (2002) face legal repercussions that could include closure.
The new ultimatum had a far-reaching effect on the human rights community, with many leading rights advocates fleeing the country. In addition, several national and international organizations decided to shut down their operations, while the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies decided to relocate its regional and international programs outside Egypt.
A new law in the making
At the same time, the government prepared a new draft NGO law that would further impose strict control over civil society. Civil society groups dismissed the new NGO legislation for violating the rights they gained in the 2014 Constitution — which stipulates the formation of NGOs by notification only, and that the government shall not interfere in their activities. The only constitutional prohibitions to form an NGO were secret, military or quasi-military organizations.
The new legislation, however, mandates formation only by formal registration with the government, placing organizations under administrative authority.
Further administrative interference is manifest in the new Law’s Coordination Committee, which effectively gives representatives of the Interior Ministry and National Security a seat at the table of every NGO board meeting.
The committee reserves broad rights to object to NGO funding, which gives it control over organizations’ activities. It can even refuse to seat members of an organization’s board of directors and object to the resolutions they propose.
The new legislation also adds supra constitutional prohibitions, such as disturbing public order or public morals, taking part in political activity and undertaking field research without permission.
Additions and amendments were made to this timeline based on feedback from readers in the human rights community.
A series of conversations
Below are the interviews we have published in this series to date: