Working in human rights in Egypt
 
 

The Egyptian state appears poised to enter into renewed confrontation with some of Egypt’s best known rights organizations with the reopening of a 2011 case accusing them of operating without a license and illegally obtaining foreign funding.

Last year Mada Masr published a series of interviews with some of the country’s leading human rights workers reflecting on their work and the context since January 25, on the way that the state uses the question of funding to crack down on civil society and on the role of civil society and human rights work in Egypt.

Five things they said about changes in the field in the five years since January 25

“I think the beginnings of the human rights movement in Egypt was actually with the [January 25] revolution. Before that, there wasn’t a human rights movement, but only human rights organizations.”

Aida Seif el Dawla, cofounder of the Egyptian Association Against Torture, and cofounder of Al-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence — currently under threat of closurewith the Ministry of Health citing unspecified violations.

“The concept of the state that was propagated since the 1960s has been broken — for example, the projection of its role as a father figure. Something broke ideologically in January 2011 that cannot be reversed, despite attempts by the state to do so.”

Gasser Abdel Razek, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) whose founder Hossam Bahgat, also a contributor at Mada Masr, faces a travel ban in relation to the NGO foreign funding case. 

Gasser Abdel Razek

Gasser Abdel Razek

“The streets have been restricted as a space for dissent through the government’s anti-protest law, and the situation now resembles that of pre-2011, in which the internet has again taken centre stage for freedom of expression.” 

Emad Mubarak, executive director of the Association for Freedom of Expression (AFTE).

“No matter how much of a crackdown there is currently, public space is still more open than before the revolution. There is space to talk, read, receive reports, and access information. The scope of the work is wider, even if there is more danger. As rights lawyers, we’ve forgotten what regular courts look like, as much of our work occurs in police territories.”

Yasmine Hossam al-Din, independent human rights lawyer.

Yasmine Hossam al-Din

Yasmine Hossam al-Din

“There have always been restrictions on rights-related work. Under Mubarak, and even before I started in the 90s and 2000s, we suffered consistent and fierce attacks. The intensity of the attack on the movement has also increased with its ability to make an impact.”

Nadeem Mansour, director of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR).

Nadeem Mansour

Nadeem Mansour

Five things they said about the state’s attack on NGO funding

“I am ready to be audited by an authority, so long as Naguib Sawiris and all the other businessmen are as well. Our reports are public and we address official entities through them. If they want to shut down the clinic, they are welcome to do it, but it can’t be with the excuse of us using [foreign] funding.”

Aida Seif el Dawla, cofounder of Al-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.

Aida Seif al-Dawla

Aida Seif al-Dawla

“We all know that Egypt is a funded state, meaning that over the past 35 years, the country has received billions of dollars annually for its military and development. In the later half of the 1990s, the Ford Foundation funded the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to conduct negotiations between Palestine and Israel.”

Gasser Abdel Razek, executive director of EIPR.

“Casting civil society organizations in a negative light, particularly querying the receipt of foreign funds, serves a particular agenda. Money from the same sources is often welcomed for development work, so it is not about the money. The contradiction is clear.”

Emad Mubarak, executive director of AFTE.

Emad Mubarak

Emad Mubarak

“During the peak of revolutionary zeal in 2011, we presented a proposal for an NGO law to the authorities that requires organizations to make their sources of funding and the amount of their funding and spending public, giving citizens the right to review this information and challenge it in court if necessary. We have committed to this voluntarily and the state wants people to forget this.”

Gamal Eid, founder of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI). Eid has been banned from traveling since February.

“There are a large number of research institutions and international organizations who are close to the state that are receiving funds without being harassed by anyone.”

Gasser Abdel Razek, executive director of EIPR.

Five things they said about the role of civil society and human rights work

“Why are we, civil society, expected to take up the role of the state, whose role it is to deal with poverty? Those who support this perspective see the role of civil society only as developmental. This is disastrous, because the duties of civil society are much more varied … I want to eat and I also want my freedom. The two elements are like water and air … For example, one cannot demonstrate against a physical problem in a specific place without freedom of expression. This is why the argument that rights work takes funds away from more concrete issues in local communities is ridiculous.”

Emad Mubarak, executive director of the Association for Freedom of Expression (AFTE).

“In many cases, rights organizations intervene in confrontations to support one party in society against another that is oppressing it. Usually the oppressing party is in the majority, or is the more powerful, the larger authority or the older one. There is often a battle over ideas, values, customs and traditions. Rights advocates generally work with minorities, the weaker parties in society.”

Amr Ezzat, researcher and officer for the freedom of religion and belief program at EIPR.

“Those working on gender-based issues understand that bottom-up, societal change is necessary. Putting pressure on the state might result in some policy changes, but these changes remain meaningless if they are not accompanied by social change.”

Dalia Abdel Hameed, head of the gender program at EIPR.

Dalia Abdel Hameed

Dalia Abdel Hameed

“The same reasons that organizations close are actually reasons for them to stay open. We can’t only work when the conditions are good and close when they deteriorate. The oppression is now stronger, and although it affects us, we are still able to help, so we should keep working. Society needs this service, so we have to provide it.”

Gamal Eid, founder of ANHRI.

“Rights organizations do not have the liberty of only working on cases that society agrees with.”

Emad Mubarak, executive director of AFTE.

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