CAIRO – Civil society groups in Egypt long had a tenuous position under the rule of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, but they were able to operate. Now those groups, ranging from human rights defenders to advocates of economic justice, fear even that margin of freedom is disappearing and that they are on the way to being silenced.
The government of newly elected President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has ordered non-governmental organizations to submit to regulations that gives the state sweeping authority over their activities and financing — and dangles over them the threat of prosecution if they violate vague guidelines against "hurting national security" or "affecting public morals."
Further adding to the worries, el-Sissi last month revised the penal code to impose a life prison sentence against anyone who requests or receives funding from abroad with the aim of "harming national interests." Human rights groups and other non-governmental organizations — many of which receive international funding — warn that the broad phrasing could be used against them.
Egypt's civil society groups had once hoped that the country's 2011 revolution that ousted Mubarak would give them greater freedom to operate. However, el-Sissi has repeatedly said that while he would like to bring greater democracy, rights and liberties cannot be allowed to undermine his goal of bringing stability to a country in turmoil. El-Sissi, as Egypt's military chief at the time, removed the elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last year and launched a crackdown against Islamists that has expanded to other critics of the government.
Worries among non-governmental organizations were sparked when they were ordered to register by Nov. 10 under a Mubarak-era law regulating such groups. The law gives the government and security agencies sweeping authority over staffing decisions, activists and funding. It also forbids the organizations to conduct activities that affect "public morals, order or unity" — vague terms that could be used to stop many NGO operations, particularly those by human rights groups.
"Operating under the current law is impossible," said Mohammed Zaree, the Egypt program manager for the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
The deadline "is in essence an effort to shut down the public sphere in Egypt," he said. "The current administration is showing that it has zero tolerance for any critical voices."
In the past, many organizations opted to register as companies or law firms instead of NGOs to avoid the law's restrictions. Other groups tried to register as NGOs but never received a response and operated anyway. Mubarak's government largely turned a blind eye, a policy apparently intended to keep groups in line by keeping the threat of enforcement dangling over them.
The announcement of the registration deadline in a state-run newspaper marked an end of the relative tolerance.
"I think everybody's expecting some sort of attack by the 10th of November," said Mohamed Lotfy, the head of a new organization called the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms.
The group produces reports on economic rights issues like price increases and evictions. It moved into its new offices just three weeks ago, and most of the desk chairs are still covered in plastic wrap. Lotfy decided to register under the current NGO law — a choice he said was difficult but necessary to provide some measure of protection to his 20 staffers.
Since Mubarak's overthrow, successive governments have planned to introduce a new legislation regulating NGOs to replace the Mubarak-era law. A draft introduced in June alarmed many groups, as it gave security agencies even greater powers to oversee groups' funding and activities and imposed harsher penalties including jail time for non-compliance.
Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali defended the deadline as a straightforward issue of law enforcement.
"Periodic review is not enough: All of their activities need to be announced to society so that society can monitor their civil activities with us," she told Egypt's CBC television. She said the "commotion" about the deadline was coming from a "small number of groups."
Rights groups are likely the most vulnerable. But other organizations could see problems. The recent draft NGO law, for example, would ban surveys and focus group discussions, tools often used by development groups to structure their projects.
Since the 2011 revolution, "the government became more suspicious about the role of civil society," Zaree said. "The government sees the civil society as something which has a huge capacity to open the public sphere, which the government wants to close."
Part of the problem, rights groups say, is the government's view of NGOs' role. At a recent symposium in Cairo, former Social Solidarity Minister Ahmed el-Borai said civil society groups should do work that furthers government policy.
"The purpose of NGOs is to help the government in whatever the government is incapable of doing," he said.
NGOs' roles as whistleblowers, as monitors of government or as policy advocates are more hazardous.
In the past year, more than a Morsi thousand supporters have been killed and more than 20,000 imprisoned in a heavy crackdown. Other, non-Islamist political activists have been given heavy prison terms under a law that bans all protests held without police approval. The Egyptian media is largely supportive of el-Sissi and critics of the president or the government are often silenced. Media routinely smear rights groups as out of touch with the public or as spies and saboteurs.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-Based rights group that tried for six years to register in Egypt, closed its office in Cairo earlier this year, citing concerns over the crackdown. In August, its executive director Kenneth Roth and its regional director Sarah Leah Whitson were detained at Cairo's airport and deported when they tried to enter to issue a new report that accused the government possible crimes against humanity.
"This is the first time that Human Rights Watch was ever denied access to Egypt," Roth said.
In December 2011, police raided international NGOs, including the American organizations Freedom House, NDI and IRI. Forty-three employees of the groups, including 17 Americans, were convicted last year of operating illegally and receiving foreign funding. Many had already left the country, and those who remained were given suspended sentences.
Nancy Okail, who was the country director of Freedom House at the time and was sentenced to five years in prison in absentia, says successive governments since Mubarak's ouster have differed little in their approach to civil society.
"The heads of state and the Cabinets change, but the bureaucracy — the people who actually do the work and draft the laws — have not changed. They are the same people," she said.