Raiding NGOs: The new way forward

In Opinion Articles by CIHRS

Egyptians bid farewell to 2011 with news of raids and closure of human rights organizations last week. Although the news is nothing short of shocking, “shocking” has been the characteristic feature of Egypt in 2011. The world was shocked to see pro-democracy protesters killed by military tanks last October (the same tanks with which protesters took pictures a few months before when the military was celebrated across Egypt), and then again by police snipers in November and army officers in December. As news of killings and other human rights violations loom over post-revolution Egypt, it was only fitting to have such a dramatic ending to the year that carried along unprecedented hope and anguish for the Egyptian people.

The recent raids are an extension of an ongoing attack on civil society which started last June. For the past 7 months, human rights activists have been accused of accepting illegal foreign funds with the purpose of causing turmoil in the country and attempting to topple the regime. Similar smear campaigns target a large number of political activists and youth groups involved in the 25 January revolution. In Egypt, the joke is that you are not a true revolutionary if you are not killed, shot in the eye, injured in a protest, tried in military court, mourning a loved one and/or – at the very least – accused of high treason.

In the eyes of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the revolution that inspired the world has turned out to be nothing more than a foreign conspiracy, and those who supported it and continue to criticize SCAF’s handling of the transition period are nothing more than spies with foreign agendas. Therefore, don’t be “shocked” when familiar faces, such as that of iconic figure Wael Ghoneim, co-founder of the “We are All Khaled Saeed” Facebook page that called for protests on 25 and 28 January, turns out to me a member of a Masonic lodge!

In a scene familiar to those who watch American and Bollywood action movies, buff and fully armed security forces with the words “Special Forces” written on their bulletproof vests stormed the offices of human rights organizations. Egyptians are not used to seeing such smartly-dressed officers, who seem to appear at rare moments such as when protesters are shot dead in Tahrir square.

To an ordinary observer, it seems rather absurd to use the help of fully armed and trained forces to confiscate documents and personal laptops from human rights offices. Yet, it comes as no surprise when you hear that on 21 December, the new Minister of Justice declared in a press conference that the “third party” commonly claimed to be responsible for attacks on protesters during the events of Maspero, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, the cabinet sit-in (and other incidents where army and police forces are photographed from every possible angle shooting at protesters) are indeed those human rights organizations.

Following this logic, it makes sense to conclude that a person like Nasser Amin, the head of the now shuttered Arab Center for Independence of Justice and Legal Professions, a member of the National Council for Human Rights, and the previous candidate for the 2011 Egyptian Parliamentary elections with an honorable history of defending human rights and dignity, is a dangerous prospective criminal!

The history of the human rights movement in Egypt and its triumphs against one of the world’s most entrenched police states is of course connected to the recent crackdown. Human rights groups have been working under harsh conditions in Egypt since the early 1980s. Human rights lawyers never failed to defend Islamists who were imprisoned under Mubarak, bloggers who faced defamation charges for expressing their views, and protesters who were harassed and detained for demanding a democratic society. Yet, it is the ongoing activities undertaken by human rights organizations that seem to be the direct reasons behind the crackdown against them.

Recently, human rights groups accomplished historic victories such as court orders to enforce minimum wage laws and prevent the SCAF from conducting virginity tests on female detainees. Following the revolution, human rights lawyers continue to defend victims of police and army abuses, from the illustrious Mubaraks and Co. trial to individual cases of torture and exploitation. Full-fledged campaigns have sought to end the practice of trying civilians in military courts (12 thousand civilians have been tried there up until now), and operation rooms worked around the clock offering medical aid to thousands of protesters throughout 2011. International and regional human rights mechanisms have been used by Egyptian defenders to expose (yes, expose) human rights abusers in the country.

Most recently, and as violations against Egyptians become unbearable with little hope for accountability in sight, NGOs have also taken legal measures against several members of the SCAF, their advisors (famous for giving out advise to burn protesters in Hitler’s ovens), and other authority figures, holding them directly responsible for crimes committed against protesters.

The same NGOs will speak up against potential violations during the anticipated mass protests to commemorate the first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution on 25 January. This is precisely why, in the trade-off between attacking these NGOs and tarnishing the image of the Egyptian government internationally, the former won out.

Still, human rights organizations in Egypt are more active than ever. Among the NGOs that have been attacked are those that continue to monitor elections and follow the human rights situation in the country. These NGOs seem more concerned with finding locations for their upcoming press conferences and workshops, and fitting into their schedules dates of upcoming trials, than they are in finding ways out of what seems to be a legal/political deadlock for their institutional existence. For these NGOs, there are no impediments, except, of course, the impending threat of arrest.

Once more, the SCAF’s attempts to silence the public concerning its crimes continue to fail miserably. It is with this uplifting conclusion that we receive the New Year, knowing that the revolution in Egypt continues.

Sohair Reyad, Researcher at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)

Published in Egypt Independent (Almasry Alyoum):

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