Egyptian civil society faces a pattern of restrictive measures, including legislative restrictions, criminal investigations and travel bans. Parliament announced the adoption of a new highly restrictive NGO law on 15 November, while numerous human rights defenders, including award-winning women’s human rights defender, Mozn Hassan, are subject to travel bans and criminal investigations. ARTICLE 19 calls for the new NGO law to be repealed, the travel bans to be lifted and for the criminal investigations against NGOs for receiving foreign funding to be dropped.
The harassment of Mozn Hassan, Executive Director of Egyptian feminist organisation, Nazra for Feminism Studies, is emblematic of the Egyptian government’s approach to alternative voices in general. On 25 November 2016, Mozn Hassan, is due to receive the “Right Livelihood” Award, known as the alternative Nobel prize, for promoting equality and the rights of women, however she is unable to travel to receive her award in person, as she is subject to a travel ban.
On 27 June 2016 Hassan learned that she was subject to the ban, when she attempted to travel to Beirut to participate in an Executive Committee meeting for the Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRD) Regional Coalition for the Middle East and North Africa. Hassan has been officially under investigation since March 2016, when she was summoned for questioning, along with other staff from Nazra, as part of case 173/2011, or the “foreign funding” case.
“The Egyptian government claims to be fighting extremism, while Mozn Hassan, who has worked tirelessly for equality and women’s rights, consistently countering extremist views, is facing harassment and restrictions”; said Saloua Ghazouni, who directs ARTICLE 19’s Middle East and North Africa Programme from its regional office in Tunis.
“Pluralistic and diverse public debate is crucial for ensuring stability, but the Egyptian government is targeting the very people promoting those values”; She added.
Hassan is not the only Egyptian human rights defender subject to a travel ban: at least twelve other human rights defenders implicated in the foreign funding case are subject to bans. A travel ban was also issued to human rights lawyer Malek Adly on 2 November, and to human rights lawyer Ahmed Ragheb on 15 November. Ragheb had been attempting to fly to Morocco for the United Nations Climate Change Conference.
On 15 November, Egypt’s already narrow civic space was further restricted with the parliament’s announcement of its approval of a new NGO law. Egyptian online news outlet, Mada Masr, reported that the discussion of the draft was carried out in secret.
In September a different draft NGO law had been submitted to the State Council by the government, which imposed heavy fines for several offenses, however the version announced by parliament on Tuesday is far more severe. The newly announced law has a number of alarming provisions which allow for up to five years’ imprisonment for a range of civil society activities, such as cooperating with foreign organisations, including international bodies such as the UN, without a permit.
Egyptian civil society had previously been involved in drafting an NGO law in 2013, however the draft did not progress after the Minister of Social Solidarity at the time, Hassan al-Borai, left his post. The replacement minister, Ghada Waly did not continue the process of consultation with civil society and instead withdrew the draft.
A pattern of restrictions
Travel bans against activists, harassment of NGOs through on-going judicial investigations and extremely restrictive laws amount to a pattern of abusive behaviour by the Egyptian authorities. On-going long-term investigations against civil society organisations such as the foreign funding case, which opened just five months after the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, have a severe chilling effect on public debate, creating an atmosphere of fear and repression.
The case began when authorities raided 17 NGOs, accusing them of a conspiracy against Egypt. Then foreign NGOs were forced out of the country in 2013 when a court ordered the closure of several foreign human rights organisations and sentenced their staff. Civil society organisations came under increased pressure in 2014 when the Ministry of Social Solidarity announced that all Egyptian and foreign NGOs working in Egypt had to register with the Ministry of Social Solidarity before 2 September 2014. The foreign-funding case was re-opened in early 2016 and in September the assets of several human rights defenders and organisations were frozen, raising concerns that criminal sentences may be issued soon.
“By preventing Egyptian human rights defenders from travelling for their work and restricting their interactions with foreign NGOs and international bodies, it appears that the Egyptian government wants to prevent their contact and connection with the international human rights community”; said Ghazouni.
“We stand in solidarity with Egyptian civil society: the travel bans must be lifted, the foreign funding case dropped and the repressive NGO law repealed. This would go some way to proving the Egyptian government’s commitments to upholding human rights and promoting a diverse and tolerant society,” she added.
ARTICLE 19 calls on the Egyptian government to:
- Lift the travel ban against Mozn Hassan, and all other human rights defenders
- Drop the foreign funding case in its entirety and cease harassing civil society
- Repeal the new NGO law and reopen discussion of the draft NGO law prepared in collaboration with Egyptian civil society.