Egypt regime has targeted NGos for years, now it has realized their importance

As part of efforts to take precautionary measures in the fight against the Coronavirus, the Egyptian Ministry of Health has recently started calling out for volunteers.

‘Be a Hero’ is the title of the central unit for medical service providers’ affairs’ campaign to attract volunteers, and the volunteering registration started online on Wednesday 25 March to attract medical professionals and students as well as anyone else willing to help.

The new volunteers are set to help medical teams in isolation and referral hospitals, field investigations, and follow-up teams. The unit has also dedicated an email for any inquiries about the volunteering missions.

You spit in this well before!!

While British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Wednesday 25 March that 405,000 people have volunteered to help the National Health Service battle the novel coronavirus, the Egyptian campaign agitated a number of activists, most prominently Mostafa Bassiouny, for the repression practiced by the Egyptian regime on NGOs. Bassiouny posted a comment titled: “You spit in this well before” on his Facebook page, addressing the Egyptian government. The post said:

“The Egyptian Ministry of Health has called for volunteers to work to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, this is very normal and completely understandable. When the country is exposed to a crisis of this level, it is necessary to open the door to volunteering to enable those who can contribute to facing this crisis to offer any effort in this regard, as one of the requirements for crossing a crisis is people’s feeling of the necessity to play any role, whatever simple it may be.

Voluntary work is the cornerstone of civil society, and the basis for the activity of parties, associations, unions, federations, associations and all forms of collective action. But the problem lies in the fact that the Egyptian regime has targeted civil society in all its forms, bodies, institutions and activities over the past period.

Some of those representing civil society are in prison, some are chased, some are denied the right to travel abroad, and others are staying at home with no activity to do.

However, it is ironic that the government that practiced all this repression has now realized the value and importance of volunteering and calls for volunteers to help tackle the coronavirus crisis.

As the Egyptian society today is in need for volunteers to help face the crisis, it has always in need for the activity of civil society organizations, not only now.

Therefore, the government must realize that in order to face crises, people, whether in factories, universities, villages or neighborhoods, must be well organized, through civil society organizations, because their organization in this way makes it easier for them and for the government to deal with any crisis or face any disaster.

It is better for the government to deal with organized opponents or even enemies that they can talk to or negotiate with,” Bassiouny said. The activist concluded his comment, addressing the government: “Don’t spit in the well; you might need to drink from it one day.”

Egypt Regime treatment of NGOs, a history of repression

In May 2017, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ratified Law no. 70/2017 on Associations and Other Foundations Working in the Field of Civil Work, which imposed unprecedentedly harsh restrictions on NGOs and has been widely criticized nationally and internationally.

On June 2, 2017, eight nongovernmental organizations – The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP), Human Rights Watch, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), CIVICUS, World Organization Against Torture (OMCT),FIDH, Associazione Ricreativa Culturale Italiana (ARCI), and Un Ponte Per – issued a statement strongly condemning the ratification of Egypt’s repressive new law to regulate nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), issued by Abdel-Fattah El Sisi on Monday, May 24, as the law ushers in unprecedented levels of repression and criminalizes the work of many NGOs, making it impossible for them to function independently.

After international pressures practiced on Egypt’s dictator, Sisi said on November 5 that he might order a review of a law restricting the work of non-governmental organizations, which has raised an outcry from human rights groups, saying it needed to be “balanced”.  

Following  Sisi’s comments in which he acknowledged the need for a more “balanced” law governing NGOs, Amnesty International published an open letter to the Egyptian government calling for the law to be scrapped and replaced with a version that is in line with Egypt’s constitutional and international commitments to ensure the right to freedom of association.

“While President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s decision to order a review of Egypt’s repressive NGO law is encouraging, amending the law is not enough. It is crucial that the authorities develop a new law in consultation with independent civil society and take concrete steps to end the relentless assault on Egypt’s human rights community,” said Najia Bounaim, Head of Campaigns for North Africa at Amnesty International.

Abdel-Fattah El Sisi ratified the new law regulating the practice of civil work in Egypt after modification and it was published in the edition of the Official Gazette dated August 19, 2019, where the Law Governing the Pursuit of Civil Work (commonly known as the NGO Law), Law No. 149 of 2019, went into effect.

Although the new law cancels jail sanctions and does away with the security-heavy agency previously designated to approve and monitor foreign funding, however, it furthers problematic restrictions on the right to freedom of association; it conceives of a narrow role for civil society, relegating it to the field of development; it significantly constrains the activities of both domestic and foreign NGOs, particularly under the pretense of national security; and it empowers authorities with expansive monitoring authority and broad discretion to regulate and dissolve NGOs. The authority of the Ministry of Social Solidarity to take punitive action against NGOs for what it deems to be violative behavior—only seeking court review after the fact—also raises questions on the discretionary nature of this power.

The crackdown of the Egyptian authorities on civil society organizations, journalists, and political dissidents has dramatically worsened since the military seized power in July 2013.

Independent civil society organizations and human rights defenders are frequently subjected to retaliatory measures and attacks, which have increased since anti-government protests started on 20 September 2019. As expressed in the recent urgency resolution by the European Parliament, the deplorable situation for human rights in Egypt must no longer be tolerated. The recommendations submitted during the UN Universal Periodic Review of Egypt must be followed up on.

On 13 January 2020, Egyptian-American citizen Mostafa Kassem died in detention after reportedly being tortured and denied medical care. He spent nearly five years in pre-trial detention and was sentenced in September 2018 to 15 years in prison, in a mass trial with more than 700 defendants. On 19 January, US secretary of state Pompeo expressed “outrage over the pointless and tragic death of detained U.S. citizen Moustafa Kassem” during a meeting with Egyptian president al-Sisi in Berlin.

Early November 2018, Egyptian security forces arrested at least 19 human rights lawyers and activists in early morning raids on Thursday, according to Amnesty International. At least eight women and 11 men were arrested, the human rights group said, including Huda Abdelmonem, a prominent human rights lawyer. Abdelmonem was detained by police after they raided her flat in Cairo, her family said. Six others in the Egyptian capital were arrested in the raids, according to two rights activists. “Today’s chilling wave of arrests targeting the human rights community is yet another appalling setback for human rights in Egypt,” said Najia Bounaim, Amnesty International’s campaigns director. “With these arrests the Egyptian authorities have once more demonstrated their ruthless determination to crush all activism and dismantle the human rights movement in the country. Anyone who dares to speak out about human rights violations in Egypt today is in danger.”

On 15 January 2020, the supreme state security prosecution renewed the pre-trial detention of human rights lawyer Mahienour al-Massry for 15 days in state security case 488/2019, on charges of engaging with a terrorist group to achieve its goals, spreading false news and statements, and misusing social media. She started a hunger strike on 5 January in response to poor detention conditions.

Mahienour al-Massry is a prominent human rights lawyer who won the Ludovic Trarieux International Human Rights Prize in 2014 for her work defending human rights.

Also, on 15 January 2020, Cairo criminal court renewed the pre-trial detention of human rights lawyer Sayed al-Banna and activists Ayman Abdel-Moati and Walid Shawky for 45 days in state security case 621/2018. They face charges of engaging with a terrorist group to achieve its goals and spreading false news and statements. The detention renewal session was due to take place on 14 January, but was adjourned until the following day.

In fact, several human rights groups and individuals have been questioned, barred from travelling, and had their assets frozen after accusations that they had accepted un-authorized foreign funding to destabilize the country.

Since late Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by Sisi in the summer of 2013, public space in Egypt became increasingly restrictive. Since coming to power in 2014, Sisi’s government has imprisoned tens of thousands without charge and banned public protests by upholding legislation forbidding the gathering of 10 or more people without prior permission.