During the first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of its rights record before the UN in 2010, the Egyptian government accepted several recommendations related to freedom of association. Overall, these recommendations urged the Egyptian state to guarantee the freedom to form associations, amend Law 84/2002 on associations, and establish simple, swift, non-discriminatory procedures for the establishment of NGOs which were not subject to the discretion of the administrative authority and met international human rights standards.
Contrary to the Egyptian government’s commitments, its practices over the last four years have sought to rein in the activities of NGOs and human rights defenders and curtail their ability to fundraise. Civil society has faced security threats, and NGOs have been subject to tendentious legal cases and their offices attacked. They have been smeared in the media and accused of treason, foreign collaboration, and seeking to carry out foreign agendas and harm the nation’s interests. Several NGO offices have been raided, and activists have been prosecuted, all because NGOs have assumed the task of defending the rights of the citizenry.
In this context, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies has released a report on the right of freedom of association over the past four years. The report is one of several reports submitted by independent Egyptian rights groups to the UN Human Rights Council, which is preparing to review Egypt’s rights record for the second time on November 5, when it will assess the fulfillment of commitments made by Egypt in the first round of the UPR in 2010.
As part of the UPR instrument, reports prepared by civil society groups working on human rights, as well as governmental and official bodies and UN special rapporteurs, are submitted to the Human Rights Council, which considers and reviews the materials pending their publication shortly before the UPR.
Egypt’s second UPR comes just days before the November 10 deadlineset by the Egyptian government for “non-registered entities” to bring their legal status into compliance with Law 84/2002. This is the same law that Egypt pledged to amend substantially, rectifying provisions that violate the constitution and international standards of freedom of association and suppress and curtail civil society activities.
In six pages, the CIHRS report reviewed violations against civil society and successive attempts by various Egyptian governments to nationalize or restrain it over the past few years. These attempts have involved an arsenal of repressive laws as well as administrative harassment, media defamation campaigns, raids on the offices of some rights groups, and attacks and threats thereof against human rights defenders.
The report is divided into two parts. The first looks at the statutory framework regulating civil society in Egypt. Although both the 2012 and 2014 constitutions provided for the establishment of NGOs by notification and prohibited their dissolution by executive decree, the statutes governing the establishment and dissolution of NGOs have not been changed. On the contrary, in the past four years, successive governments have proposed more than five NGO laws, none of which meet international standards for the right of freedom of association. In fact, most of them are even more repressive and draconian than Law 84/2002. The report devotes a special section to the latter law, examining the seven major problems with it and the onerous regulations it sets for civic associations. The legal section of the report also looks at the Penal Code, which criminalizes some activities falling within the scope of associations’ activities.
The second part of the report focuses on successive Egyptian governments’ practices and violations of the right of freedom of association and the rights of civic association and civil society. The past four years have seen a fierce assault on NGOs that has included raids on the offices of eight Egyptian and foreign NGOs by civilian police and military forces, a grave indication of the state’s approach to the right of freedom of association. In addition, smear campaigns have targeted rights organizations, and human rights defenders have been prosecuted. As the report notes, since July 2011, an unprecedented defamation campaign has been brought to bear against NGOs working in human rights. The judiciary has been politicized and is used to gag dissident voices by launching judicial investigations of several human rights defenders and referring many more to criminal court, where they have been convicted and sentenced to terms of one to five years in prison.
As the report notes, the attack on NGOs was escalated when a government order was issued to breach the confidential bank accounts of several rights groups and activists, among them the CIHRS and its director. The justice minister later announced the appointment of two investigating judges to look into the foreign funding of NGOs. The investigations were marred by several legal violations, including the use of the investigation as a platform from which to smear human rights groups by leaking information about the investigation to media close to the government, although this is criminalized by the Egyptian Penal Code. This is in addition to the ongoing defamation of civil society, which is routinely accused in the media of collaborating with foreign states, serving the agendas and interests of its funders, and even high treason.