Civil society seeks to fight back against govt attacks

Thirty-six civil society groups released a statement on 24 August condemning the “smear campaign” being conducted against them by Egypt’s military rulers.

The statement comes as a response to a two-pronged attack on civil society by Egypt’s military rulers. State Security Prosecution will be launching an investigation into the sources of funding for civil society groups to see if they have violated laws that stipulate that all funding must be approved by the government, local media has reported. At the same time, there have been various statements from the military, political leaders, and local media in recent weeks attempting to discredit civil society.

“We denounce the continuation of the organized smear campaigns designed to impugn these groups’ patriotism, as well as ongoing attempts to intimidate civil society groups through investigations… by State Security Prosecution into complaints accusing unnamed NGOs and political groups of receiving foreign funds… in violation of the law,” the joint statement says.

The groups also sent a letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, dated 22 August, to draw attention to the “organized campaign by the government of Egypt” against NGOs to pre-empt the actions of such organizations.

The groups contend in the letter that the accusations against them were a “direct response to the role played by Egyptian civil society, particularly human rights defenders, in exposing abuses committed by the [ruling] Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).”

Legal web traps civil society

The public prosecutor has received a number of complaints that civil society groups have received funds from abroad in contravention of Egyptian law. Who filed the complaints is unknown. The complaints also indicated that these groups were attempting to sabotage the country and cause divisions between the armed forces and the people.

Last week, a number of journalists even bypassed the public prosecutor altogether and submitted a complaint directly to the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), according to reports from the state-run news agency MENA. The complaint was filed against 18 organizations.

The ruling military council has also directly accused groups of attempting to harm the national interest at the behest of foreign funders.

The accusations don’t stop there, however. Civil society groups are also facing accusations of grand treason and conspiring against Egypt, harming national security and carrying out foreign agendas.

No one will be called for questioning, however, until investigations are completed, according to reports in local media.

Essam Sultan, deputy head of the Wasat Party, said recently that he was opposed to filing charges against NGOs over their funding and was opposed to labeling them as treacherous entities carrying out foreign agendas.

He did, however, stress that transparency was required when it came to funding these groups. As such he had sent a letter to the US Embassy asking it to divulge the names of groups that were funded by some US$40 million purportedly spent on democracy groups since 25 January.

Foreign funding of NGOs has been highlighted in the media recently, as attempts have been made to bring all civil society groups within the framework of Law 84/2002, which governs NGOs and stipulates that all groups of that ilk be registered with the Ministry of Social Solidarity, hence being able to monitor – and potentially cut off – their funding.

Head of the Cairo Institute of Human Rights Studies Bahey Eldin Hassan said during the 24 August press conference that the UNHCR had criticized Law 84 because of the restrictions it places on the work of civil society and the advanced authorization of the state needed to receive foreign funding.

As a reaction to that law, and the law that preceded it, Law 153/1999, which was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court a year later, many organizations – especially those working on human rights issues – are registered as civil companies or law firms rather than NGOs with the ministry. Among them are the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI).

Law 153 had initially stipulated that NGOs must be registered with the Ministry of Social Solidarity. It also banned NGO activities in the fields of politics and trade unions and any other activities that posed a threat to “national unity" or “violate[d] public order or morality,” an article which remained in Law 84/2002.

The Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that forming NGOs was a right in a free society, and should not be subject to the approval of an administrative body. The court also ruled that the law contravened Article 47 of the 1971 Constitution, which enshrined freedom of expression as a right for citizens.

Because the article that banned certain activities remained in place in Law 84, many organizations registered as a company rather than be placed under undue governmental restrictions.

ANHRI head Gamal Eid argued that it was organizations not registered with the ministry that worked the hardest at uncovering violations by the state. They were forced to seek a different type of registration for their work, in order to avoid being encumbered by pressure from Mubarak’s regime.

“Any organizations that were really doing what needed to be done were pressured by the State Security Investigations Service [now renamed the National Security Agency] and were forced to go down this route,” he said.

Negad al-Borai, a board member of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, pointed out that the State Security Prosecution had the mandate to investigate all organizations, regardless of their registration.

“Civil society groups – like every other arena – have the good and the bad,” he said, “And while some are in it to do good work others may be in it for the money. But that isn’t the point. The point is, I suspect, the integrity of the government [regarding this].”

The attempt to place restrictions on the work of NGOs continues under the rule of the armed forces, according to Borai. “The armed forces want to oppress groups working in these areas and is trying to stifle freedom of expression,” he said. And activists say that the military's ongoing smear campaign against civil society groups is part and parcel of these efforts.

All of which has raised the question of what alternatives civil society groups have regards funding as elections loom, particularly as any attempts to evade state restrictions will be watched closely.

Emad Mubarak of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression in Egypt previously said that there are no alternative sources of funding for NGOs, especially in the human rights arena, and that ultimately what mattered was what the money was spent on and the necessary rights-based work it helped facilitate.

Movements also under investigation

The April 6 Youth Movement, which is an activist group and not an NGO, has also been drawn into the fray. The movement was directly accused by the army in Communiqué Number 69 of attempting to create divisions between the army and the people.

Major General Hassan al-Ruweiny, a member of the military council, has made public comments accusing the movement of accepting foreign funds in order to carry out activities that harm Egypt’s national interests.

There have been other complaints filed against the movement, but the group is firing back. It recently filed a complaint – against itself – with the Public Prosecutor to prompt an investigation, which members hope will clear its name. It also submitted a complaint against Ruweiny for his disparaging comments.

The movement’s coordinator Ahmed Maher said: “What’s happening is good, to prove that we are not funded by foreigners. We filed a complaint against Ruweiny because he is lying that we are funded from abroad. The army receives funding from abroad. So do NGOs. We are neither; we are a youth movement.”

Tarek al-Kholi, spokesman for the movement’s splinter group known as the Democratic Front, said, “If anyone has anything against us, please let them submit it to the Public Prosecutor. And even if an individual in the movement received funding of some sort, that doesn’t mean the entire movement is foreign funded.”

“We’re pleased with the investigation, and if an individual receives funding for the movement that is illegal, I support countering that,” he added. “There are NGOs that receive external funding, and it is well known, but the reason for smearing the movement is to distract from the demands of the revolution that have not been met. If they have documents, they should submit them. We submitted a complaint against ourselves and against Ruweiny.”

The complaint against Ruweiny is still pending with the Public Prosecutor, in anticipation of it being referred to the Military Prosecution. Borai believes that the armed forces are taking a similar approach to that taken by the Mubarak regime, and vowed that rights organizations would not back down.

“We resisted peacefully against Mubarak for 30 years, and we can keep going, for as long as it takes,” he said. “It’s difficult for a country to make a transition to democracy with the military still wanting to remain in power.”

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