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Political Retrenchment and the Human Rights Movement

By the mid-1990s, the regime’s discomfort with the human rights movement reached new levels. In just over a decade, the movement had grown to over a dozen organizations, many of which had established strong links with the international human rights community and had achieved observer status in a number of international human rights regimes, such as the United Nations Economic and Social Council. The human rights movement increasingly leveraged international pressure on the Egyptian regime through these channels. Domestically, moreover, human rights organizations had begun to cooperate closely with opposition parties and professional syndicates, as demonstrated most effectively in their resistance to Law 95/1995 (a press law) and their campaign in monitoring the 1995 People’s Assembly elections. Moreover, the most dynamic human rights organizations increasingly used public interest litigation in the courts as an effective avenue to challenge the regime.

In response, the regime began to turn the screws on the human rights movement as early as 1995 through intimidation, smear campaigns in the state press, and discouraging donor organizations from contributing to local human rights NGOs. Beginning in 1998, however, the regime engaged in a full-fledged campaign to undermine the human rights movement after the EOHR published an extensive report on a particularly shocking episode of sectarian violence in the village of Al-Kosheh in August 1998. The EOHR report uncovered not only the details of one

of Egypt’s worst bouts of sectarian violence, a politically taboo subject in

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itself, but also that hundreds of citizens were tortured at the hands of state security forces for weeks following the incident. In response to the report, Hafez Abu Sa'ada, secretary-general of the EOHR, was charged by state security prosecutors with ‘‘receiving money from a foreign country in order to damage the national interest, spreading rumors which affect the country’s interests, and violating the decree against collecting donations without obtaining permission from the appropriate authorities.’’37 Abu Sa'ada was detained for six days of questioning and then released on bail. The trial was postponed indefinitely but the charges remained on the books.38 Abu Sa'ada’s interrogation was a warning to the human rights community that strong dissent and foreign funding would no longer be tolerated by the regime. In the aftermath of Abu Sa'ada’s interrogation, the EOHR acquiesced to government pressure and stopped accepting foreign funding.

The following year, the regime issued a new law governing NGO activity that tightened the already severe constraints imposed by Law 32/ 1964. Law 153/1999 first eliminated the loophole that had allowed NGOs to operate as civil companies and forced human rights organizations to submit to Ministry of Social Affairs (MOSA) supervision or face immediate closure. The new law additionally forbade civil associations from engaging in ‘‘any political or unionist activity, the exercise of which is restricted to political parties and syndicates.’’ Moreover, MOSA maintained the right to dissolve any association “threatening national unity or violating public order or morals.’’39 The new law also struck at the Achilles heel of the human rights movement by further constraining its ability to receive foreign funding without prior government approval.40 Additionally, Law 153 prevented NGOs from even communicating with foreign associations without first informing the govern- ment.41 These new regulations were clear attempts by the regime to place new constraints on human rights groups that were effectively leveraging international pressure on the Egyptian regime through transnational human rights networks. The greatest asset of the human rights movement now became its greatest vulnerability. Moreover, the vulnerability of the human rights movement went beyond the material support and institutional linkages that were jeopardized by the new law; the moral authority of the human rights movement was increasingly challenged as the regime framed the movement’s dependence on foreign support as nothing short of sedition. Law 153 was accompanied by a smear campaign in the state-run press in which human rights groups were portrayed as a treasonous fifth column, supported by foreign powers that only wished to tarnish Egypt’s reputation and sow internal discord.

The human rights movement mobilized considerable opposition to

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the new associations law in a short period of time. Within a week, human rights groups organized a press conference at which they contended that Law 153 violated the constitution and they vowed to fight it in the SCC if it was not repealed. At the same time, human rights groups met with major opposition parties and professional syndicates and secured their support. Days later, a national NGO coalition was convened, bringing together over one hundred associations from across the country. NGOs committed to mobilize domestic and international pressure on the regime through a demonstration in front of the People’s Assembly, a weeklong hunger strike, and litigation in the courts. International pressure came quickly with statements from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Federation of Human Rights, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, and others.

But the regime proved its resolve to rein in human rights NGOs when the state security prosecutor announced in February 2000 that the case against human rights defender Hafez Abu Sa'ada would be reopened and that he would be tried before the Emergency State Security Court under Military Decree 4/1992 for accepting money from foreign donors without governmental approval.42 The charges carried a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. The announcement came when Abu Sa'ada was in France and for two weeks following the announcement, Abu Sa'ada remained in Paris, allegedly considering political asylum. Zakaria Azmi, chief of the presidential staff, and Kamal el-Shazli, minister of parliamentary affairs, were dispatched to France to negotiate with Abu Sa'ada and defuse the embarrassing political incident. Abu Sa'ada returned to Egypt in March but the trial was not held, possibly because of a deal cut with the authorities. However, just as charges were not dropped following Abu Sa'ada’s 1998 interrogation, the new charges against him were not formally withdrawn, once again allowing the authorities to resume the case at any time in the following ten years. The charges cast a shadow not only over Abu Sa'ada and the EOHR but over the entire human rights movement, which depended almost entirely on foreign funding.

The new NGO law, government intimidation, and restrictions on foreign funding threatened to shut down the entire human rights movement. Worse still, rifts within the human rights community emerged over how to deal with the regime’s new assault. Some human rights groups, such as the EOHR, declared their intention to fight the new associations law through official avenues but to comply with its requirements by formally registering. Alternately, the Group for Democratic Development decided to suspend its activities in March 2000 to protest the new law, the renewal of emergency law, and the Abu Sa'ada interrogation. The Center for Human Rights Legal Aid (CHRLA), the single

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most important human rights organization engaged in litigation, faced internal splits when hardliners and softliners disagreed on whether to acquiesce to the new law or to fight it. As a result, CHRLA split into two organizations, with the softliners acquiescing and registering their new Association for Human Rights Legal Aid and the hardliners, forming the majority of CHRLA lawyers, establishing the new Hisham Mubarak Center for Legal Aid under the leadership of Gasser Abdel Razeq.43 The lack of coordination between human rights organizations and discord within the organizations themselves interfered with their ability to present a united front against the regime.

With the future of the human rights movement looking more bleak each day, a ray of hope emerged in April 2000 when the commissioner’s body of the SCC issued its preliminary report on a constitutional challenge to Law 153/1999. The case involved an NGO from Tanta by the name of al-gam‘iyya al-shari‘yya, which was fighting an order by the MOSA that barred several of the NGO members from running in elections for the group’s board of directors. By June 3, 2000, the SCC issued its final ruling in the case, striking down the single most important piece of legislation governing associational life in decades.44 The SCC crafted and delivered the ruling in a strategic way that maximized the ruling’s impact without precipitating a direct confrontation with the regime. First, the SCC issued its ruling only five days before the end of the 2000 People’s Assembly session, making it difficult for the regime to issue a new associations law. As a result, NGOs were effectively granted a minimum of a five-month lease on life. More important, this lease on life came at perhaps the most critical time for human rights activists and pro-democracy reformers because national elections for the next People’s Assembly were just months away and activists hoped to play a prominent role in monitoring the elections as they had done for the first time in 1995.45

 
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