A Mubarak-era law stating that human rights groups must register has been utilised by President al-Sisi’s administration to encourage compliance with the administration by human rights organisations based in Egypt. Issued with an ultimatum by the government in November to either re-register or face a crackdown, Egyptian human rights organisations are facing difficult questions about their future under the al-Sisi government.
A Mubarak-era law from 2002 requiring non-governmental organisations to register with the government has been evoked by al-Sisi during a public statement in November, which asserted that human rights groups and other civil society groups must re-register with the government or face a potential crackdown on their activities. For their part, Egyptian human rights groups such as the prominent Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights have claimed that the law is “restrictive” and an attempt by the government to prevent them from being able to undertake their research and advocacy work to their best ability.
On December 21st, 2014, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a widely-respected advocacy and research human rights organisation founded in 2002, issued a statement outlining that its board of trustees had voted to register, after the government ultimatum warning that organisations that failed to do so will face prosecution. The statement explained that the organisation has chosen to attempt to continue working under the restrictive law and, according to the Associated Press, “test what freedom the law allows.”
While the ultimatum deadline passed without arrests, after Egyptian officials claimed that nine foreign human rights organisations and eight Egyptian human rights organisations had opted to submit their applications to register, not all Egyptian human rights groups feel able to continue working in Egypt after the ultimatum. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, another prominent human rights organisation that was crucial in documenting human rights abuses under Mubarak, has opted to move its headquarters to Tunisia rather than face the potential further scrutiny and hindrance to its work that it may face if it registers.
There are concerns from human rights groups that new restrictions will in reality constrain their ability to function effectively, such as the 2014 revision to Article 78 of the penal code that imposes a life sentence on anyone who receives foreign funding with the aim of “hurting national security”, a nebulous statement reminiscent of the charges against the three Al Jazeera journalists currently in jail in Egypt for the charge of “threatening national security” through their work as journalists.
The recent ultimatum issued by the Egyptian government towards human rights organisations and other civil society organisations is part of the wider landscape of laws and decrees by the al-Sisi government aimed at restricting and closely monitoring the conduct of human rights organisations. In the summer of 2014, Human Rights Watch released a report, ‘All According to Plan’, which documented state and army involvement in the Rabaa massacre in which, it estimated, between 800 and 1,100 people were killed on July 14th and July 15th 2013. Members of Human Rights Watch arriving in Egypt shortly before the publication of the ‘All According to Plan’ report in order to present their findings were detained upon arrival for twelve hours and denied entry into Egypt.
Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East and North Africa director of Human Right Watch, has claimed that, under al-Sisi’s government, it is now “business as usual”, with Mubarak-era restrictions on human rights organisations revived as the al-Sisi government clamps down on both Islamist groups and secular organisations such as the April 6th Youth Movement who were crucial in organising the 2011 revolution that overthrew authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak. The 2014 anti-protest law, that curtailed freedom of assembly, was widely criticised by Egyptian human rights group for impinging on Egyptian’s human rights. Yet, as the new restrictive measures against human rights organisations indicate, while human rights may be being corroded under al-Sisi, human rights organisations themselves are also caught in the crossfire.