The Destruction of the Local Human Rights Movement

In recent years official pressure on the human rights movement has increased to the extent that it is appropriate to speak of a policy to systematically destroy the independent nongovernmental human rights movement, at least in the form in which it had developed by 2000.

A change in the government’s attitude toward local human rights organizations became discernible in early 1995. On January 22, 1995, the legislative department of the Ministry of Justice issued a ruling on the status of so-called civil companies, saying that if they failed to register under the Law on Associations then they would be liable to prosecution.

From then on government officials habitually referred to local human rights groups as illegal organizations and began to discourage international human rights organizations from cooperating with local groups. The government informed international donors that they should not provide grants to organizations not registered under Law 32 of 1964. Almost all human rights organizations were not so registered. For a time no measures were taken to enforce this tougher official line, and international support of Egypt’s growing human rights community continued. Nevertheless, the authorities succeeded in undermining popular support for the human rights movement by attacking human rights activists and organizations through the state-controlled media.

The attack was carried out primarily on two fronts. Human rights organizations were criticized for objecting to human rights violations against alleged supporters of militant Islamic groups. Government officials accused human rights groups of giving aid and comfort to terrorists. The second line of attack focused on the foreign connections of local human rights organizations, especially their reliance on foreign funding. Such attacks played on fears of foreign interference in Egypt’s affairs and on memories of the injustices of the not so distant colonial past.

While this concerted and orchestrated campaign of defamation against the local and international human rights movements may certainly be characterized as a self-serving attempt by the government to distract attention from its poor human rights record, the tactic was effective because it drew on genuine concerns and grievances felt by many Egyptians. The country was unsettled by political violence from militant Islamic groups that had targeted tourists—thus damaging the economy—and state officials. Even within the human rights movement itself, the issues of foreign funding and reliance on the mobilization of foreign pressure were highly controversial. It is not surprising that many Egyptians, who were unfamiliar with international human rights in both theory and practice, would be deeply suspicious of the purposes of these foreign organizations and governments in criticizing Egypt.

It is worth considering the government’s motivation in going on the offensive against its human rights critics since 1995. What has been called the deliberalization of Egypt during the 1990s (some contradictory trends have appeared since 2000) appears to be a response to several factors.33 The repression of the local human rights movement, and a stolid resistance to international human rights pressure, should certainly be seen as part of this process of deliberalization. Between 1991 and 1994 the government faced a dangerous escalation in political violence that reached the level of an insurrection in parts of Upper Egypt, and targeted for assassination senior government leaders, including President Mubarak. At the same time Islamic groups were gaining popular support and demonstrating their electoral appeal by winning control of powerful professional associations, including the Medical Syndicate, the Engineers Syndicate, and, in 1993, the bar association. The government felt that it was losing control of the situation and was alarmed when Western press reports began to speak of official U.S. government security assessments predicting that ‘‘Islamic fundamentalist terrorists will continue to make gains across Egypt, leading to the eventual collapse of the Mubarak government.’’34

Eberhard Kienle argues that political deliberalization should also be seen as a corollary of economic structural adjustment, as well as a policy designed to stifle discontent from the millions of Egyptians whose livelihoods have been negatively affected by economic liberalization and to head off social conflict arising from increased income inequality. Since the 1977 bread riots (widespread riots followed President Sadat’s attempt to cut government subsidies on bread prices), Egyptian governments have been cautious in their approach to reducing state subsidies and entitlements.

Other factors were also at work. The rapid growth of nongovernmental advocacy groups in Egypt was a new phenomenon. The state was

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obliged to take notice of this new dynamic sector of society through a series of major international conferences on social and economic issues during the mid-1990s, including the UN Conference on Population and Development in Cairo itself. Large, vociferous delegations of Egyptian NGOs attended each of these conferences, stripping the state of its accustomed role as the sole representative of Egypt on the international stage. Some of these NGOs were critical of government policies. They were also well connected internationally and supported financially by foreign governments and donor organizations. These organizations commanded a respectful international audience, not least in the human rights field, and the government found itself on the defensive in international fora, like the UN Human Rights Committee, coming under criticism on the basis of information collected by local NGOs. The government may well have decided that it did not have to tolerate this kind of international embarrassment and resolved to bring unruly NGOs more firmly into the official orbit.

The government’s response to human rights pressure also appears to fit into a domestic political strategy of responding to the threat of political Islam with a mixture of accommodation and repression. While the state did not hesitate to use repressive force against its Islamist opponents, both violent and nonviolent, it also went along with and even encouraged greater Islamization in society in the social and cultural spheres. In doing this, the government tried to portray itself as the defender of traditional Islamic values in an attempt to siphon off support for Islamist opposition groups. The critique of human rights as an alien Western concept and of human rights activists as agents of foreign powers had the dual benefit of supporting the government’s brand of nativist Islamism while undermining its human rights critics. Moreover, the government was aware of its vulnerability to domestic criticism because of its close association with U. S. policy in the region. Engaging in harsh rhetoric against its human rights critics enabled the government to place some welcome distance between it and the U.S. government, which was seen as employing human rights ideas to serve its own interests. The government calculated correctly that dissonance at the rhetorical and practical levels on human rights would not threaten the bilateral U.S.-Egyptian relationship.

Finally, in considering the government’s response to the merited criticism of its human rights record, it must be noted that the Egyptian government was aware of its strategic importance to the West and that this provided considerable leeway in what its allies would tolerate in its treatment of its own citizens. Egypt was the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel and has continued to play a role, in accordance with

U.S. policy, in promoting peace between Israel and its neighbors. Egypt

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was pivotal in the creation of the Desert Storm coalition that drove Saddam Hussein’s Iraq out of Kuwait. Like many Arab states allied with the West, the Egyptian government has been adept at trading on Western fears of militant Islam, thereby gaining a degree of international indulgence with respect to what it may do in order to quell internal dissent. Taking these together, the Egyptian government remains highly insulated from international human rights pressure. Part of its reasoning in pursuing a hard line against domestic human rights advocates must surely be that it knows it can get away with it. The cost in terms of international penalties has been negligible, whereas the benefit of a tamed, quiescent local human rights movement is readily apparent.

The destruction of the local human rights movement that developed between 1985 and 1995 started in the mid-1990s, but it has accelerated. In December 1998, Hafez Abu Sa‘ada, secretary-general of the EOHR, was detained in connection with a controversial report issued by the EOHR about human rights violations in the predominantly Christian village of Al-Kosheh in Upper Egypt. The government accused the EOHR of receiving money from foreign sources in order to defame the reputation of the country.

Despite the state’s demonstrating its readiness to use the tools at its disposal to penalize local NGOs for receiving foreign funding, local human rights organizations continued to receive grants and carry on with business as usual. There were, however, clouds on the horizon.

The government was moving forward with its plans to replace the much criticized Law on Associations, Law 32 of 1964. At first, most human rights activists thought that this might be an opportunity to do away with the obstacle to legal normalization for many groups that had been a major hindrance to their development and acceptance in Egyptian society. Some cautioned that they had learned how to work around the old law, whereas the government could be expected to be more insistent on enforcing a new one. The human rights NGOs were divided as to how to approach the government on the issue. While there was broad agreement that any new law should simplify the registration process and protect the independence of NGOs from governmental interference in accordance with developing international standards regarding the work of human rights defenders,35 there was little accord on how this could best be achieved. The government offered to consult with NGOs as part of the process of drafting the new law. Some regarded this as worthwhile; others thought that it would bind the NGOs into a governmental process that would not work to their advantage. As it turned out, NGO activists who did participate in the drafting process found their work disregarded when the government pushed its own version of the law

through Parliament, Law 153 of 1999, in May 1999.

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The law failed to meet the expectations of human rights activists and fell short of international standards upholding the rights of human rights defenders. For example, Article 11 of the new law outlawed ‘‘political’’ activities by NGOs, a loosely defined restriction that could be used to penalize legitimate activities by human rights defenders. Article 75 of the law banned the receipt of money from abroad or domestic fundraising without prior permission from the authorities. In June 2000 the Constitutional Court suspended the new law on technical grounds. However, the government declared its intention to apply the new law without substantive changes as soon as procedural hurdles could be overcome. It also announced that all organizations would have to apply for registration under the new law, including those currently registered as not-for- profit civil companies. Organizations that continued to work without registration would be subject to prosecution.

The government’s imposition of a new law maintaining its control over NGO activities, despite the temporary uncertainty created by the Constitutional Court’s intervention, was a major blow to the human rights movement. Activists had hoped that the government would be sensitive to pressure from international donors, who spend millions of dollars in Egypt each year on a range of social welfare and development projects, to liberalize the Law on Associations. But when the crunch came:

Donors just disappeared in the fight with the government. They had taken strong positions saying that the government should enact a new law compatible with international standards protecting the rights of independent NGOs. But, when the government ignored these demands they did nothing. They said they wanted to protect their broader programs.36

All donors are not the same. By far the largest donor to the nongovernmental sector in Egypt is the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). It has long emphasized funding in the areas of economic and social development. It has not funded advocacy groups or professional associations. This is an important distinction. The government’s hostility has been directed primarily at advocacy groups, especially those, like human rights organizations, that have developed strong international connections, capable of embarrassing the government on the global stage. Advocacy groups, and in the early 1990s professional associations, have been anomalous in the Egyptian context as channels for the expression of dissident opinion, which state authorities have refused to tolerate. The government has welcomed international support for a wide range of economic and social development projects that do not challenge government policies or provide political space for the

government’s opponents. Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid has noted that

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‘‘U.S. officials value the friendship of the Egyptian government more than the strength of civil society organizations.’’37 In 1999, USAID signaled its agreement with government efforts to centralize control over NGO activities by announcing its support for the NGO Service Center that appeared designed to channel international support to officially approved NGOs and, in time, could be used to exclude nonapproved NGOs from any place at the funding table. Only NGOs registered under the Law on Associations are eligible to receive funds from the NGO Service Center, which is run in collaboration with the Ministry of Social Affairs.

Other smaller donors, including other governmental donors, have been willing in the past to make grants to NGOs not registered under the Law on Associations. It is not hard to imagine a near future in Egypt in which the only nonregistered NGOs will be human rights groups unwilling to be sufficiently quiescent to earn governmental approval. When that time comes, it is unlikely that any substantial funding agency will be prepared to endanger its other programs—with perfectly legitimate, independent NGOs lucky enough to be working in less controversial areas than human rights—by offering funds to nonregistered human rights groups.

However, the full impact of the new law did not need to be felt for human rights groups to suffer a near devastating blow to their ability to receive the foreign funding on which they depend. On June 30, 2000, the police arrested Saad Eddin Ibrahim, director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies. He was held until his release on bail on August 10, 2000. His trial on various charges, including accepting foreign funding without permission under Decree Law 4 of 1992, began on November 18, 2000, and ended with the conviction of Saad Eddin Ibrahim and three of his staff members on May 21, 2001, on three charges: the receipt of foreign funding without permission; dissemination of false information abroad; and appropriating money by fraudulent means. He received a seven-year prison sentence.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim is no ordinary prisoner, and his prosecution and conviction, regardless of what may happen at any subsequent appeal stage of the trial, or in any appeal for clemency to the president, has already sent a clear message to human rights activists that the government is willing and able to enforce the law to cut off flows of foreign financial support that it does not supervise. Heeding that message, most human rights groups have been forced to radically curtail their programs as their funding sources have dried up. For example, the EOHR first closed its regional offices, then laid off all but three of its staff members in its Cairo headquarters. Its output has slowed to a trickle. The

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local human rights groups focused on Egypt are now a collection of individuals with no institutional foundation for their activities.38

Saad Eddin Ibrahim is an internationally renowned sociologist who was somewhat resented in NGO circles in Egypt for his close ties to government officials, including the president. Ibrahim, despite his proximity to government leaders, was also a persistent government critic. In recent years his work had focused on promoting free elections as well as the expansion of civil society and the welfare of Egypt’s religious minorities. Professor Ibrahim was a founding member of the EOHR, and over the years he had collaborated with the human rights community on many issues of common concern, including the new law. When he was arrested, Egyptian human rights advocates recognized Ibrahim as one of their own. The sobering conclusion they were forced to draw was that if it could happen to Dr. Saad, who was thought to lead a charmed life because of his influential friends, it could happen to any one of them. Other sectors of Egyptian society were less supportive of Ibrahim. The government and the press found him a suitable target for criticism as someone in the pay of foreigners to damage the good name of Egypt. In a way, he came to epitomize the government’s animus against the independent human rights community in general.

By arresting Ibrahim the Egyptian government again demonstrated its majestic indifference to what the world thinks about its human rights practices. It could hardly have picked a target more well-known in the worlds of academia, the media, and international development, and, indeed, by government officials from many countries, including Egypt’s closest allies—precisely the people most likely to be active and influential in mounting an international campaign for his release.

To return to the spiral model, denial is too strong a word for the Egyptian government’s response to transnational pressures to improve its human rights record. Indifference better captures the passivity that has been the hallmark of its reactions. The question now arises, of course, whether the persecution of Professor Ibrahim is a step too far and whether Egypt’s allies may begin to take seriously the human rights conditions attached to the various trade and aid relationships by which they are bound to Cairo. Writing in the immediate aftermath of the trial, there is a marked increase in interest in human rights issues in Egypt in Washington, D.C., but that may pass, and the Egyptian government has already shown its ability to absorb and deflect foreign criticism of human rights violations to its own advantage.

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