Mon, Oct 19, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Egyptian government moves to smother civil society

With the 2011 revolution a distant memory, the authorities are clamping down on non-governmental organizations, using the nation’s struggle against terrorism to justify such actions

By Rania al-Malky  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Yusha

When the Egyptian government announced last month that it had dissolved 57 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) — all accused of having links to the banned Muslim Brotherhood — it was just the latest step in a process which, under the guise of anti-terrorist policy, is tearing apart the carefully woven fabric of Egyptian society.

The war on civil society has come in two forms, with the main target being the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2012, after the elation of the 2011 revolution, former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood became the nation’s first-ever democratically elected leader. However, after the army removed him from power in July 2013, the new government moved swiftly to clamp down on both the Muslim Brotherhood and its civil society activities.

An extra-judicial announcement by the interim Cabinet in December 2013 declaring the Brotherhood “a terrorist organization” was followed by a court ruling. These moves have, to date, resulted in the seizure of 1,300 Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated NGOs, whose assets were frozen, their premises confiscated by the state and management taken over by the Egyptian Ministry of Social Solidarity.

By July, the number of civil society organizations shut down for allegedly belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood had reached 434, according to official statements. Some of those worked with some of the poorest people in Egypt’s poorest provinces.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Medical Association, for example, served 2 million sick patients and thousands who were in need of kidney dialysis, all unable to pay for medical treatment. Their charitable, self-sustaining network constituted a parallel welfare system that often surpassed the “free” government educational and health services in both quality and efficiency — hence the group’s mobilizing capacity.

However, early this year the association was taken over, its board of directors replaced by pro-regime figures from the Egyptian Ministry of Health and a new chairman appointed: former grand mufti of Egypt Ali Gomaa — notorious for his anti-Brotherhood rhetoric.

The Muslim Brotherhood has not been the only victim of the regime’s crackdown on NGOs. Over the years, the Egyptian government has capriciously targeted other NGOs with a slew of laws effectively criminalizing their activities. It has particularly singled out organizations calling for social reform, political liberalization and respect for human rights and workers’ rights.

According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, while Egypt’s NGO law is one of the most restrictive in the world, the “effect of the restrictive legal framework ... has not been to ban civil society outright, but rather to give enormous discretionary powers to the Ministry of Social Solidarity.”

All civil society must register with the government, while — as in other countries — counterterrorism legislation is also invoked against “any association, organization, group or gang” that attempts to “destabilize the public order or ... endanger social unity.”

As a result, organizations and individuals crossing certain red lines are “increasingly forced to operate in a climate of fear, limitation and uncertainty,” and intimidated by ad hoc security probes.

Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies researcher and lawyer Mohamed Zaree said that the law practically equates what they do at the institute — raising awareness of civic rights, or calling for group action in the form of peaceful protest or strikes — to what the Islamic State group is doing on the border.

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