Analysis

Egypt's Sissi Sets Records in Crushing Dissent

Egypt takes another step to restrict human rights NGOs and media; as in Israel, they are seen as source of all evil

A masked member of security forces is pictured as they secure Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, November 11, 2016.
Mohamed Abd El Ghany, Reuters

It looks as though Egypt has decided to compete with Israel when it comes to the attitude towards human rights organization. This month the parliament in Cairo decided to show its neighbor that whatever it can do, Egypt can do better. The new NGO law was submitted for the perusal of the Egyptian State Council, and if it approves, the Egyptian president can chalk up another achievement in the effort to restrict the work of the NGOs.

The law, which is arousing an uproar among Egyptian liberals and international organizations, determines that a special authority, whose members will include representatives of the intelligence branches, will be established to grant occupational permits to the NGOs. Every foreign NGO will be required to deposit 300,000 Egyptian liras ($16,900) for a three-year permit, after which the deposit will increase by 20 percent. An Egyptian NGO will be required to deposit only 8,000 Egyptian liras, yet both foreign and domestic organizations will be required to operate in a manner that will not undermine national security – of course, without there being any definition of national security.

An NGO will be able to engage in projects of economic development only in the context of the government’s economic programs. The directors or activists in these organizations will be personally responsible for any violation, and the punishment will be up to five years in prison and a large fine. The NGOs will be unable to conduct surveys or publish research without the approval of the NGOs authority, and will be unable to receive foreign assistance without a special permit. Every foreign contribution will be supervised, in order to prevent a situation in which “foreign funding will serve to assist terrorist activity, or to turn the NGOs into a tool for implementing anarchist agendas,” according to Abdel Hadi al-Qabasi, chairman of the parliamentary committee for social solidarity, who initiated the law.

As in Turkey and Israel, in Egypt, too, human rights organizations are considered emissaries of foreign entities, whose only objective is to interfere with the regime and even to carry out coups. The 48,000 NGOs there are well aware of the sensitivity of the regime, which according to some of their spokespersons adopts a policy that is far more brutal than in the time of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Even before the draft bill was written, NGO activists became a preferred target of the intelligence services, their activists were arrested and tried, and recently the government has prevented several of them from leaving the country.

For example, Aida Seif al-Dawla, head of the El Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Victims of Violence and Torture, was forbidden to leave Egypt, and TV presenter Amr El-Leithy was forced to return from the airport after being told his exit visa had been revoked. El-Leithy angered the regime after interviewing a rickshaw owner who criticized the government on the Al-Hayat television channel. About 15 cases of prevention of exit were registered in 2016, and about 80 since 2014. Protests by Amnesty International and other international organizations were of no avail, since they are in any case suspected of hostility to the regime.

Journalists carry a symbolic coffin representing "journalism freedom", at the Journalists' Syndicate in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016.
Amr Nabil, AP

When the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, who occasionally condemned the violation of human rights, is gradually disappearing, and the administration of president-elect Donald Trump is seen as not being particularly interested in the subject, the time seems to be ripe for an anti-NGO campaign. And if in Turkey the European Union still has some sort of leverage because of Turkey’s desire to join it, in the case of Egypt it has almost no say.

But not only NGO activists are suffering from the heavy hand of the regime. Photo-journalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, aka “Shawkan,” has been under arrest for about four years already because he filmed demonstrations after the regime of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was brought down by the army. If convicted he is due to receive the death sentence.

This month Shawkan won the International Press Freedom award, and governments and international organizations are engaged in efforts to bring about his release, but at the moment the Egyptian government doesn’t seem impressed; while the protest continues, the court sentenced three senior members of the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate, chairman Yahia Kallash and two board members, to two years in prison. Their crime: providing refuge for two journalists whom the government wanted to arrest due to their coverage of protests against Egypt’s decision to transfer the Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia.

This is the first time in the 75 years of its existence that the heads of the Journalists’ Syndicate have been arrested and tried, and that’s not enough for the regime. It intends to pass a new press law to establish three authorities for handling the media: a national press council, a national media council and a supreme council for regulation.

These authorities will be authorized to appoint the members of the boards of directors and the editors-in-chief of the government newspapers, they will determine the threshold requirements for appointing editors and board members, decide on salaries in the profession and ensure that the Egyptian medias operate in the context of “the national interests.” Needless to say, the members of these authorities will be approved by the government.

In the context of its close cooperation with Egypt, Israel will probably also be able to imitate the results of Egyptian ingenuity, at least when it comes to public broadcasting.