By Declan Walsh – The New York Times –
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Monday enacted a law that imposes strict new regulations on aid groups, stoking fears that his government intends to accelerate its harsh crackdown on human rights activists before a presidential election scheduled for next year.
The new law, which some aid groups predict will force them to shut down, was approved by Egypt’s Parliament in November, but Mr. Sisi hesitated to sign it after trenchant criticism from Western officials, most notably the Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who threatened to restrict American aid to Egypt if the legislation was approved.
But recently Mr. Sisi has appeared emboldened by a burgeoning friendship with President Trump, who has hailed the Egyptian strongman as a “fantastic guy” and indicated that he did not intend to allow human rights issues to sour their relationship.
Having welcomed Mr. Sisi to Washington last month, Mr. Trump met with him again during his visit last week to Saudi Arabia, where the two leaders were photographed touching a glowing orb alongside Salman, the Saudi king. On his return to Egypt, the Sisi government pushed through new news media restrictions and prosecuted a rival political leader in the courts, further squeezing political rights and free speech.
“Egypt and other regimes like Bahrain definitely feel they have a green light from Trump to undertake repressive actions in the name of counterterrorism and to anticipate that the Trump administration will not issue a word of criticism,” said Amy Hawthorne, an Egypt expert at the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington.
Mr. Sisi argues that harsh measures are needed to counter the threat from violent extremists like the Islamic State, which since December has killed more than 100 Christians in a campaign of sectarian violence. In the latest attack, on Friday, gunmen killed 30 people as they traveled to a monastery in southern Minya governorate.
Critics counter that Mr. Sisi’s counterterrorism strategy is in fact foundering badly, yet the president seems intent on scapegoating progressives and political rivals.
The law approved on Monday by Mr. Sisi places harsh restrictions on Egypt’s 47,000 local nongovernmental organizations as well as about 100 foreign-financed ones. It makes their work subject to approval by a new regulatory body that aid workers say is likely to be little more than a vehicle for interference by the country’s security agencies.
Aid groups will need permission from the new body, which has not yet been established, to conduct fieldwork or publish surveys, and more broadly must ensure their work “fits the state’s plans, development needs and priorities,” according to the law.
“This is a complete disaster,” said Mohamed Zaree, a prominent Egyptian human rights defender. “They have taken away everything. It’s over. It’s not just human rights organizations — they are also going after charities and any organized group they do not already control.”
Mr. Zaree himself is currently facing trial on charges of endangering national security, and has been banned from leaving Egypt.
Last week, Mr. Sisi’s government blocked 21 websites in Egypt, including Al Jazeera; the Arabic language version of The Huffington Post; and Mada Masr, an independent news organization that has published several investigations into the workings of the security agencies. After an outcry on social media, Mada Masr appeared to be working again on Monday.
On May 23, the police arrested Khaled Ali, a prominent human rights lawyer who led opposition to Mr. Sisi’s decision early last year to hand over possession of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. That agreement angered the Egyptian public, and it is one of the few issues where Mr. Sisi is considered politically vulnerable.
Some saw the arrest as part of an effort by Mr. Sisi to clear the field of rivals before next year’s presidential election. If Mr. Ali, one of those rivals, is convicted on charges of “violating public morals,” he faces a potential two-year prison sentence and will be disqualified from running for office.
In Washington, Mr. Sisi’s warm relationship with Mr. Trump has been offset by stiff criticism from Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham. In a joint statement in December, they slammed the new aid law as “draconian” and vowed to push for restrictions on American aid to Egypt, currently at about $1.3 billion a year, if it is enacted. Their offices could not be reached for comment on Monday.
“This is a very bad day for Egypt,” said Ms. Hawthorne, the analyst, who predicted that the new law would weaken Egypt by effectively criminalizing the work of many aid groups.
“We have a terrible experience of seeing what happens when authoritarian regimes crush that space between citizens and the state,” she said. “It’s what happened under Qaddafi in Libya, and it’s what happened under Saddam Hussein in Iraq. And it never leads to stability.”
Photo: President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt has drawn criticism for a new law that places strict regulations on aid groups in his country. Credit: Egyptian Presidency, via Reuters