Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘reimagining democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic governance, and the challenges they encounter in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Mohamed Zaree, a human rights activist and legal expert, and the Egypt Country Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS). Following the crackdown on Egyptian human rights organisations, CIHRS was forced to relocate its headquarters to Tunis, and Mr Zaree is currently being prosecuted for his human rights advocacy. He risks life imprisonment if convicted. In October 2017 he was awarded the annual prize of the Martin Ennals Foundation for his contribution to promoting human rights amid the government’s escalating harassment and intimidation of activists.
- How would you describe the state of democracy in Egypt? What happened to the democratic resurgence of 2011?
There is no democracy in Egypt. It is obvious to everyone here that this is a dictatorship: there is no rule of law, there is a lack of an active civil society and political parties, and the space for civil society (civic space) is closing. Even if there is an appearance of democratic institutions, including parliament, there is no democracy of any kind. Institutions are controlled by the security apparatus. Even the elections for parliament have not been a competition among political parties as much as a competition between security apparatuses, so members of parliament don’t represent the people as much as they represent the security apparatus. This situation is reflected in all the laws that have been recently enacted, including the infamous NGO (non-governmental organisation) Law (also known as Law 70) that has been widely criticised.
So I wouldn’t like to say that the 2011 democratic revolution has been defeated, but at least we must acknowledge that it has been momentarily set back. We put high expectations on the 25 January Revolution, and it gave us some hope, which still lives on. But technically, nothing is left from the revolution except for the benefits for the army, the police and the judiciary – there have been no gains for the people who participated in or led the revolution. Many people who took part in it are now in jail or in exile. But it is still not over yet; even if we are going through the hardest of times, a step was taken on 25 January 2011 that is very difficult to erase. So I would rather say the revolution is in hibernation right now.
- What do you see as the minimal conditions for a functioning democracy, and what should be the role of civil society in it?
Elections are a very important democratic procedure, but at the end of the day they are just a procedure. The practice of democracy is the art of compromise among different opinions; it involves the peaceful coexistence of diverse views and requires a dynamic and lively society. So democracy means a free media, free civil society and free political parties, or, in other words, the freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of association.
Elections are therefore necessary, but they are not enough. To fulfil their purpose, elections need to meet a number of conditions that cannot be taken for granted. In the upcoming presidential elections, to be held in early 2018, we are supposedly going to vote for a president, but the election could easily become a referendum on the incumbent president, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, since there is no democratic atmosphere that can guarantee that there is a meaningful competition among candidates for office. We are currently living under a state of emergency, with military courts and military trials for civilians, and a potential presidential candidate is facing a politically motivated trial; if convicted, he would be prevented from running.
The highly repressive NGO law that was passed earlier this year cripples the ability of civil society organisations (CSOs) to monitor the elections. The 1914 Assembly Law and the 2013 Protest Law severely restrict the ability of citizens to gather and demonstrate. The state and the security agencies control the media, even nominally private channels, so there is no chance for a variety of opinions to be heard. So the elections are likely to turn into a referendum.
- How far is Egypt from achieving a functioning democracy, and what should the government do in the short term towards that end?
From a scale of 1 to 10, I would rate Egypt as below zero. So for starters, for the upcoming elections to be actual elections, some changes should take place immediately: the state of emergency and the Assembly and Protest Laws should be repealed so that candidates are able to organise assemblies and run their campaigns. Political activists and media workers who are in jail should be released. An independent entity should oversee the media in order to guarantee a fair coverage for all candidates, instead of the ongoing disproportionately negative coverage of opposition candidates on state-owned media. Media channels should be open to all citizens. And for civil society to be able to play its role, the NGO Law should be repealed.
- 4. What do you think the government was trying to achieve with the NGO Law? What restrictions does the new law impose on the activities of civil society?
The government was, and is, trying to close civic space completely. Or rather, the president along with the security apparatus is, and not necessarily the government, since the president is in practice ruling alone.
The NGO Law is clearly not an isolated piece of legislation; it fits perfectly within a wider strategy to restrict civil society. It is not targeted specifically at human rights organisations, but encompasses all of civil society, including charity and developmental organisations. Under the new law, a CSO can be fined and its director can be jailed for up to five years for conducting a poll or publishing a report that has not been approved by the government, or for hiring a foreign worker. A sentence of two years in prison can be imposed for merely changing the organisation’s headquarters without notifying the authorities.
Similar to the National Security Council provided for in the constitution, which is responsible for identifying ways to secure the country and respond to crises and disasters, the bill provides for an entity known as the National Agency for the Regulation of Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations. To be constituted by presidential decree, the agency will consist of representatives from three security bodies, as well as representatives from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice, International Cooperation, the competent ministry for civic associations, the Central Bank, the anti-money laundering unit, and the Administrative Control Authority. Under the law, this agency will determine all matters related to the affairs of international CSOs, funding and cooperation between Egyptian associations and any foreign body. In utter disregard for constitutional principles, the law specifies that applications to the agency receiving no response within two months will be considered denied. In an attempt to combat civic action by all possible means, the law gives the government the right to object to all internal association resolutions, nominations to their boards of directors, and the regularity of their meetings.
So this law is truly a declaration of intentions from the president toward civil society. The message is: you will work under very strict supervision, and if you are not able to work at all, that is fine with us, because you are not wanted.
- Have you or your organisation directly experienced restrictions? How has this clampdown on civil society affected your work - and your life?
I don’t think the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies will be very affected by the NGO Law specifically. There are a lot of articles in the Penal Code that are affecting civil society a lot more than the NGO Law. For instance, the assets of our Director have been frozen, but this happened as a result of the application of the Penal Code rather than the NGO Law. I have been under a travel ban not because of this law, but because of the Penal Code. I have been under investigation and faced three charges, two of them under the Penal Code and the third, the softest, under the NGO Law.
The latter charge is punishable with up to six months in prison. The other two, in contrast, can lead to life imprisonment. The two most serious charges I face, which have nothing to do with the NGO Law, are related to receiving unauthorised foreign funding and setting up an organisation of an international nature without a permit. Although this case, also known as the Foreign Funding Case against CSOs, or Case 173, dates back to 2011, these crimes became more serious after the Penal Code was amended in 2014. As I am facing two charges, I could receive two back-to-back life sentences. A life sentence in Egypt amounts to 25 years, so I could receive more than 30 years imprisonment overall, if I were convicted.
As a result of the travel ban, I was unable to travel to Geneva to receive the Martin Ennals Award. The organisers tried to contact the President and the Minister of Foreign Affairs to have it lifted, but they didn’t receive any response, so my wife and two daughters travelled to receive it on my behalf.
Of course all of this has affected me. I am in denial; I try not to think that I may be going to prison. In fact, I avoid this kind of thought and try to live a normal life. My family are also worried, and all of this has affected their morale, so it was good for them to go to Geneva to get my award. In Egypt you cannot predict anything; there is always fear of what could happen next. I could finish this interview only to find the police knocking on my door to arrest me. This could happen at any time, so it’s better not to think too much about it.
- You, your organisation and other civil society organisations keep working nonetheless. What are you doing to counteract these threats?
We have learned that challenging restrictions such as travel bans and freezing asset orders through legal means is somehow useless, given the destruction undergone by the Egyptian judicial system. What we are doing instead is raise these issues with the international community. Pressure from the international community doesn’t automatically make our situation better, but at least it helps so that our situation does not get any worse. International actors have been in many meetings with government officials, in Cairo and abroad, to put pressure so that no additional charges are raised and the cases against us are closed.
From our end, we also keep challenging the legality of the procedures followed on our cases. Some human rights defenders have challenged the legitimacy of the judge presiding on their cases. The Cairo Institute has questioned the decision to extend the appointment of the judge presiding over Case 173 and claimed that this and other legal and procedural violations have marred the case.
Besides, we keep trying to do our normal work on a daily basis. As we monitor human rights abuses, we have more work than ever. We are experiencing the worse restrictions just at the time when we are needed the most. Many human rights organisations have downsized or have moved some of their staff abroad. I am still in Cairo, but many people with the CIHRS have left the country and the organisation has been based in Tunisia since 2014.
In sum, we are pursuing two strategies to counteract restrictions: legal challenge and international pressure. But in terms of effectiveness, international pressure definitely comes first.
- What additional international support does Egyptian civil society need to be able to respond better?
We need the international community to keep putting pressure on the government, facilitating the work of human rights organisations in Egypt and abroad, and providing protection for threatened human rights defenders.
The Egyptian government is now facing the threat of extremism, and insist that we should all stand together against terrorism. But what they need to understand is that security and human rights are very much linked. Rather than dealing individually with terrorists by arresting or bombing them, they need to deal with the root causes of radicalisation in Egypt. It is important that they realise that repression is not part of the solution as much as it is part of the problem.
The leaders of democratic societies are in the best position to put this kind of pressure. I don’t want French President Emmanuel Macron to lecture anyone on human rights. That is not his job; it is actually my job. What he could do is show integrity by providing protection and using his leverage to bring about slight improvements in the human rights situation, instead of selling Rafale warplanes and other military equipment to Egypt. So far, remaining silent and praising a dictator has been the price tag of those Rafale fighters.