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Egypt steps up 'unprecedented' crackdown on NGOs

Mohamed El-Shahed, AFP| Mozn Hassan, the executive director of a leading women's rights group Nazra for Feminist Studies, speaks to a journalist at her office in the Egyptian capital Cairo, on July 26, 2016.

In an ongoing assault on human and civil rights groups, the Egyptian government froze the assets of several NGOs and activists this week, raising a chorus of criticism from the international community.


An Egyptian court on January 11 froze the assets of Mozn Hassan, director of the Nazra for Feminist Studies; Mohamed Zaree, head of the Arab Penal Reform Organization; and Atef Hafez, director of the Arab Organization for Judicial Reform, and seized those of the three groups.

"They froze my assets today and seized those of my organisation, the first time in history a feminist or women's rights organisation gets its assets seized," Hassan told Reuters.

The European Union said the decision, “continues a worrying trend of restricting space for civil society to operate in Egypt".

The US State Department also responded, saying it is “troubled” by the court ruling.

“This decision comes against a wider backdrop of restrictions on Egyptian civil society activity and will produce neither stability nor security,” it said in a statement.

On Thursday, New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) published its annual World Report, in which it charged Egypt with shutting down all public criticism of the government.

The report also said that thousands of people have disappeared at the hands of the security forces and that detainees are subjected to routine torture.

The document called the government’s crackdown on civil society and the criminalisation of human rights work, “unprecedented".

"President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government is consolidating and escalating repression," said Joe Stork, Deputy Middle East Director at HRW. "Absent strong responses from the international community, authorities will continue to squeeze the space for exercising basic freedoms into nothing."

The clampdown continues

The move against the three NGOS and their leaders is but the latest salvo in an ongoing clampdown on organisations that are suspected of illegally receiving foreign-funding, an accusation that has become a catch-all excuse to shut down civil society in Egypt since Sisi’s ouster of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi in 2013.

The assault has included detention and questioning of activists and the imposition of travel bans on leading rights campaigners. The assets of five other rights activists and three other NGOs were frozen in September. And authorities have banned at least 15 people affiliated with rights groups from traveling outside of Egypt, the HRW report said.

In November, Hassan was prevented from traveling to Stockholm to accept the 2016 Right Livelihood Award, widely known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize”.

A new constitution ratified in a 2014 referendum is, on paper, the most progressive in the country’s history, but guarantees of press and individual freedoms, privacy and human rights have been largely ignored from the outset.

In November, Egypt’s parliament approved a highly restrictive draft law that, if signed by the president, would curb the activities of civil society groups and give security and intelligence agencies extensive supervisory power over their funding.

While on the rise since Sisi took office, the offensive against NGOs dates back to 2011 when Egypt shut down several foreign organisations and arrested their American and Egyptian staff. Eventually, the two governments struck a deal and the Americans were allowed to return home (although one chose to stay and stand trial alongside his Egyptian colleagues). The case was decided in 2014 and 43 of the groups’ American and Egyptian employees were sentenced to five years in prison, although the Americans had all left the country by that point.

Expansion of repression

Since the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian regime has grown increasingly repressive. Initially the targets of oppression were those affiliated with or supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, but the net has widened to include anyone engaging in public dissent or criticism of the government.

Sisi has repeatedly said that Egypt should not be judged by Western standards and that the right to education, housing and health care is just as important as freedom of expression. He has emphasised the need to fight terrorism and improve the economy, but despite tightened security and the influx of massive sums from Gulf States, insurgents continue to be a thorn in his side and the average Egyptian is significantly less well-off than a year ago.


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