It began with a smear campaign in the media, followed by low-key intimidation in the form of inquiries about administrative matters, travel bans and the summoning of staff members for interrogation.
For Nancy Okail, it culminated in an indictment, trial and five-year prison sentence in absentia.
Okail, former director of Freedom House’s Egypt program and one of 43 defendants convicted of operating an organization and receiving funds from a foreign government without a license in June 2013, looks back on the course her high-profile trial took.
The case dates back to December 2011, when the Cabinet asked the minister of justice to form a fact-finding committee to look into the foreign funding received by civil society groups. The committee solicited the help of the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, the Ministry of Social Solidarity, State Security Investigations Services, General Intelligence, the Interior Ministry’s Public Funds Investigation Department and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Each body presented a list of NGOs receiving foreign funds, or “operating illegally.”
The committee then named over 30 foreign and local organizations it claimed were conducting activities of a “political, social, economic or charitable nature” without the appropriate licenses.
Then came the summons in early December 2011, Okail says, a stage during which the international community took notice and started moving to condemn the crackdown on NGOs.
During one of the interrogation sessions, Okail was instructed to keep quiet about the case.
“I was told by one of the prosecutors that this was a secret case, and that if said anything I would be imprisoned,” she says.
By the end of December, raids were also conducted on the offices of a number of NGOs, Okail recounts, with inquiries mostly revolving around the legalities of registration.
Until a few days before they were indicted and convicted, the defendants were given multiple assurances by policy makers that no case would be brought against them and that these were merely general inquiries.
In June 2013, Okail and the remaining 42 defendants — including 17 US citizens, other foreigners and Egyptians — were sentenced to one to five years in prison, many of them in absentia, under Article 98(c)(1) of the Penal Code, which stipulates a prison sentence and fine for anyone who creates, establishes or manages an association, organization or institution of any kind, or a branch of an international organization without a license.
The court also ordered the closure of the implicated NGOs, including the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House.
“The entire case was framed in a way that appeared to be legal, but was highly political,” Okail says.
The 2011 fact-finding committee concluded foreign funding is mostly of a “political nature,” and is aimed at interference in state affairs. Such funders are involved in a “constant pursuit to circumvent the law and not follow the legal framework to provide aid, and there is a lack of transparency over how the money is spent,” it asserted.
Okail points to a general lack of understanding of the role of civil society. She recalls official meetings she had at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Social Solidarity — proof, she says, that their work was legitimate — during which a Social Solidarity Ministry official said Freedom House’s program includes advocacy, which he defined as “mobilization of the people against the government.”
“This was a clear sign from an official of not only lack of understanding of the role of civil society but also lack of appreciation of its importance and value,” Okail says.
She explains that since her ordeal began, the work of civil society has been criminalized. “They made it seem like receiving funding was like dealing drugs,” she says. This, she adds, not only affected them on a professional level but on a personal level as well, as defendants were publicly vilified.
“I was under a lot of stress,” she recalls. “At one point the media published all our names and national IDs and addresses. I was receiving threatening phone calls every night. They wanted me out.”
On Thursday March 24, Cairo Criminal Court is scheduled to review a ruling to freeze the assets of human rights defenders Hossam Bahgat and Gamal Eid, pending investigations into charges that they illegally received US$1.5 million in foreign funding for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the Arab Network for Human Rights Information. Eid and Bahgat were also banned from travel in February.
Staff members, mostly those working in finance, from the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) and Nazra for Feminist Studies have also received summons. In the case of Nazra, its founder and director Mozn Hassan was officially summoned following the questioning of three other Nazra staff members.
In February, Al-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence was also paid a visit by two police sergeants with an order to shut them down based on claims of violations by the Health Ministry. The officials who arrived to shutter Al-Nadeem did not provide any information about the nature of the violations.
Earlier this month, human rights lawyer Negad al-Borai was also summoned and questioned at a Giza court on charges of receiving illegal foreign funding, as well as establishing and running an illegal group. He was interrogated for over three hours before he was released on bail pending further investigations.
In the order to freeze Bahgat’s assets, the investigative judge stated that he violated Article 78 of the Penal Code, Article 98(c)(1), Article 98(d) and Article 76(2)(a) of the Associations Law 84/2002.
Mohamed Zarea, head of CIHRS, says he is prepared for the worst.
“This is the worst moment for the human rights movement in Egypt. This is their fiercest attack yet,” he laments. “We are not just talking about tightening the grip over civil society, we are talking about wiping it out completely.”
Zarea adds that there has been an intention to close down human rights organizations since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took office.
“They think if they close down rights organizations, no one will criticize them internationally,” he says. “They consider us a nuisance, so they said, ‘let’s find out what they’re up to in terms of their taxes and their insurances’,” he explains.
The organizations also anticipate a freeze on their assets, which would hinder their work. “Our existence is under threat,” Zarea says.
Gasser Abdel Razek, executive director of EIPR, agrees, suggesting the government is determined to go ahead with closing down the organization.
While he sees parallels with the 2013 case, he believes this time the process is slower and “less brutal but systematic.” By less brutal, Abdel Razek means there were no raids on the offices, which he attributes to an attempt to “avoid things that would set off very strong criticism.”
He describes the situation as an “unprecedented crisis.”
Heba Morayef, EIPR’s associate director, also says this time around the attack is more focused. “They benefited from hindsight, so I think there’s a more deliberate approach this time,” she says. “They might not be assessing it strategically, but they still know what they’re doing.”
“Even if they arrest us, the human rights movement is no longer limited to a few NGOs,” Eid, says. “Shutting them down won’t stop the movement. Stopping the violations against human rights is what will end it.”
Eid spoke to Mada Masr from his office, in the full presence of his staff, a testament to not fearing or giving up.
Abdel Razek too speaks of resilience. He explains that EIPR’s staff was more anxious in 2014, but now their offices are fully staffed and functioning. “We are more adamant to keep working, despite everything,” he says. “Even though we know that this time around the stakes are higher than they were in 2014.”
Morayef explains that there is a sense of normalization that comes with working in a high-risk environment. “You are able to balance a consciousness of risk with being able to operate,” she says.
Meanwhile, for Abdel Razek, the physical safety of some of EIPR’s key figures is a priority, followed by the closing down of its office and the freezing of its assets.
Zarea laments working in a high-risk environment, saying it affects the work of rights organizations. He explains that since October 2014, a lot of staff members have quit and the organization relocated some of its activities to Tunisia.
He adds that there are some reports that CIHRS prepared but was reluctant to issue because of the risk. “We had a long list of things to do,” he says. “But instead of working on a strategic plan, you work on contingency plans.”
But still, he says, this is the field they chose, even under the rule of Hosni Mubarak. “Back then it was an authoritative but more mature regime,” he says. “Now it is an authoritative but immature regime.”
Similarly, Eid sees the case as a manifestation of a weak regime with unpredictable decision making. “If we are tired, they are stuck. There is a lot of hesitation and confusion [among authorities],” Eid says. “There is political and economic failure, and they have to find anything to hang these failures on.”
“The current regime has no ceiling. It is frightening that you don’t know what they’re capable of,” says Zarea.
Now that the case that has been lingering since 2011 has been reopened, “we are trying to minimize damage and close it, even if it comes at a price,” Zarea says, adding that he has no regrets. “We are not going to be put in a defensive position, nor are we embarrassed.”
Eid’s non-Egyptian wife and daughter have also been listed as defendants in the case. “She is being punished for marrying an Egyptian lawyer,” he says. “But she is stronger than me and is the one giving me the support. I am proud of her and of my daughter.”
Okail, now the executive director of the DC-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP), had initially chosen to stay for the trial, attending all the interrogation sessions and subsequent court hearings.
“My decision to stay in the beginning was derived from the conviction that I didn’t break the law and was ready to stand trial,” she says. “But then I realized that it’s not a fair or legal trial, and felt it was more useful for me to be overseas.”
“At least now I am able to continue my work,” she says. “But I can’t be with my family because my work is still criminalized in Egypt.”