As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Khaled Mansour about the challenges Egyptian civil society has faced since the army took power in 2013. Khaled was a journalist and then a United Nations aid and peacekeeping official for 25 years before he ran the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a leading Egyptian human rights organisation. He is now an independent writer and analyst on human rights, humanitarian aid and development, and a non-resident senior fellow of the Arab Reform Initiative.
1. What have been some of the key challenges for Egyptian civil society in recent years?
First, it’s important to say that Egypt should be seen as part of the wider world we’re living in right now, where more and more governments, even those that have had relatively well-established democratic governance systems, are becoming more authoritarian. And they mimic each other.
One of the main ways they mimic each other is in their use of a legal arsenal against civil society. We see this in Egypt. For example, in early
July, parliament approved the final reading of a new law on electronic crime. Article 25 of the new law says that if you publish something that violates ‘family values’ you can go to prison for at least six months and/or be fined US$5,000. There are many similar troubling articles in the law. The problem, as with most of these laws, is the vague language referring to national security, social mores and so on. Also under this law, if you have more than 5,000 friends and/or followers on Facebook or Twitter, you are treated not as a private person but as a publication, which means you are subject to another set of draconian laws on libel and defamation. Because there are 30,000 people who may read my Facebook posts, I could be legally treated as a newspaper.
The new law is part of a legal arsenal that controls both virtual and physical space in the public realm. The legal arsenal is introducing more surveillance, and more repressive and threatening measures. The intention is to dissuade, discourage and frighten people, even from writing a post on Facebook.
Another way in which many countries are similar is that they are arresting bloggers, writers, artists and singers. These kinds of arrests have been going on in Egypt for several years. In one recent case, after posting Facebook videos about being sexually harassed that went viral, two women were arrested. One is still being interrogated, and the other received, for a first offence, an eight-year sentence, on the grounds of defaming Egypt - a very vague and ambiguous concept. Some of the language they used was probably ‘profane’, but people shouldn’t get imprisoned just for using foul language.
And then you have the blocking of websites. Over 400 websites are blocked, but under the new electronic crimes law, using a virtual private network (VPN) to try to get around this, or using the anonymous Tor browser could get you at least two years in jail, and a fine as high as US$31,000.
In sum, restrictions on the freedom of expression, even the freedom of thought, are complete in writing and frightening in practice. And you will find a similar level of restrictions being applied to the freedom of assembly and the freedom of trade unions and political parties.
2. How have these tactics of restriction impacted on civil society?
We need to understand that civil society is a huge field, starting with service delivery and development and ending with advocacy and policy lobbying. Civil society in Egypt has been decimated for decades, because we have had authoritarian regimes for a few decades. In the 10 to 15 years before the uprising of 2011, we had some conditional openings, despite restrictive laws. Because the laws were applied at will and many not applied, you could take a risk. So, you had a growing civil society. One of its roles was in providing essential social services that the state was rapidly withdrawing from providing.
But since the army took over in 2013, following massive demonstrations against the Muslim Brotherhood government of the time, we started seeing civil society space shrinking radically as never before seen in Egypt since the army first entered politics in 1952.
Most civil society organisations (CSOs) working on service delivery and development have toed the line or had to come under almost direct government management, but organisations working on advocacy, democracy promotion and human rights have been under tremendous pressure. Around 30 activists, most of them pioneers in the human rights movement, have been banned from travelling. At least 10 leading activists have had their assets or their organisations’ assets frozen. Many leaders have been subjected to criminal charges. These are usually charges of establishing an organisation in violation of the law, tax evasion, or undermining the reputation and national security of the country.
For example, the three leading women human rights defenders working on issues of torture with the unique Al Nadeem Centre, which tries to help victims of torture and which regularly publishes a list of cases of torture and killings in detention, have been charged and released on bail or banned from travelling.
3. What do you think drives and motivates these attacks?
From what is published in pro-government media, which shouldn’t necessarily be taken at face value, the claim is that the authorities are protecting the country from foreign interference, that the government has been the target of an external conspiracy. This is not unique to Egypt. You hear it in other countries, such as Hungary, India and Israel. Most regimes that are chauvinist, protectionist and xenophobic use these excuses to cover up the failures of their social and economic policies and their corruption.
It’s true of course that many human rights organisations have outside connections: they speak to foreign media, go to the United Nations Human Rights Council, publish reports in several languages. But surely the only way to let people decide for themselves is to be transparent: people should be allowed to read their websites and make their minds up, rather than such sites be blocked. Of course, those who repress civil society don’t want an open field. They are worried that if opinions and ideas can be freely expressed, it will lead to people understanding why and how there are failures, why there is high inflation for example, why people are not receiving adequate healthcare nor decent public education. They are afraid that these organisations, by raising the level of debate, publishing information, articulating positions, explaining how the budget is skewed, how the new tax system doesn’t work, how torture has killed decent human beings, might lead to anger and social protest.
It’s important to say that the repression doesn’t just come from the government. There has been a rising nationalist, authoritarian sentiment within the population. This can be partly attributed to massive vilification and demonisation campaigns by the regime-controlled media, and media controlled by the economic elite that doesn’t want to have free trade unions, and the religious elite that doesn’t want organisations calling for freedom of conscience and freedom of belief. The media is controlled by an elite hostile to rights, including social and economic rights and sexual rights, and they have affected the public mood. I think that’s changing again now, but slowly, and that’s why we see new laws placing more restrictions on social media platforms, which are not as easily controlled as mass media.
4. How has civil society responded to the repression?
In short, for organisations working on advocacy, democracy promotion and human rights, some left, some stopped and some adapted or, in other words, continue to work and resist in various ways.
There were some organisations that shut down, and their activists left Egypt altogether, but I would say most of these were not in the forefront of the struggle for human rights in recent years: most of these were small groups or think tanks that were not really leading the human rights movement.
Most stayed. But many had to cut down on programmes or relocate the bulk of them to a country like Tunisia, because their activities and/or funding had often been undermined. This meant they cut down on staff. Some responded creatively, by letting their staff go part-time and do other things, like teach or do research. Also, many had to decide not to work on some issues because it was made very clear that the state would not allow it. For example, there has been little scope for CSOs to work on the state counterterrorism campaign in North Sinai. Many organisations and programmes that have focused on prisons and torture are unable to work more effectively because of the complete lack of access. Some continued to do so, like the Al Nadeem Centre, in spite of harassment.
Sometimes the response is to do more of some things and less of others, for example, by doing more documentation and reporting. But apart from civil society advocacy on comprehensive health insurance, there is little attempt at lobbying or policy advocacy, because there are no interlocutors to engage with on the state side.
So in essence I would say civil society has been decimated, but not obliterated. Taking a long view, it is not all doom and gloom. Those who come out of the other side of this experience will be much more adept at dealing with pressure, will understand society more and will try to build sustainability without too much reliance on foreign funding. Maybe human rights will cease being something seen as an elitist, metropolitan concern, and will become more of a site of struggle for people from lower classes who would like to have a better life, more freedom and social justice – which are very much the sentiments of the 2011 revolution.
5. How can the situation for civil society be improved?
Again, there is a need to say that this is not only about Egypt. There is a rising anti-democratic sentiment, both at the elite level and the popular level, from Washington DC to Moscow, and we are all suffering. In other times, repressive governments might have paid some attention to what the European Union (EU) or US says, and avoid a full-fledged crackdown, but now they are unaccountable because of the lack of global pressure and because of nationalist sentiment in those places too, so they have almost complete impunity.
In the long term, what needs to happen to reverse that sentiment is to promote the understanding that democratic rights do not exist only in a narrow individual and civil sense; we should talk about the right to have education, healthcare, a job: rights that concern all of us, which means that people working on rights are a legitimate part of this country and this society.
As well as this, the elite must understand that they will fail, and failing will cost them much more than the cost of allowing more democratic practices and compromises. If they have a tax system that’s more equitable, allow trade unions to form and protest without being arrested, allow people to write freely about their conscience, belief, religion, then of course there is a cost for that, including sometimes allowing social protest by counter forces or conservative forces. But the cost of maintaining the stability of the country in this alternative way is much less than the cost the whole society might end up paying because of the current unchallenged policies.
For example, we have multi-billion government foreign contracts or domestic mega-projects for new communities - even a new capital - that are happening without any genuine monitoring or questioning, because there are no free media or trade unions and the parliament has been hand-picked. Local councils, which should be the first building block of democracy, are practically frozen and elections for new ones have not been held for many years.
What has to happen nationally and internationally is a change in the thinking about the relationship between democracy, human rights and stability. As long as you see issues like terrorism or migration as threats that can be contained within only one country and as long as you grapple with them by using mainly security and anti-terrorism measures, you will end up having governments controlled by security agencies in the global south that are influenced tremendously by security agencies in the global north. If the EU is frightened about massive waves of migrants coming from Egypt and North Africa, then its short-term policy will be in support of containing people in this region to ‘protect’ Europe. If this attitude and approach towards the region doesn’t change, it’s going to take many years and a heavy price until we admit its failures.
But ultimately, the current situation is not sustainable. Regimes that are security-based, that are run by generals and security agencies, and control all of society, including politics and the economy – in the end they fail. These are big countries and without at least a minimum of democracy you can’t reach the compromises required to reconcile difference. Otherwise you have to have more repression, which ultimately brings more violence and it, ultimately, fails. Often an army faction or leading ethnic group will find out, after sustaining major losses, that sharing and compromising is better than trying to hold a monopoly on power.
The security-first approach is not working. If that changes, then we have a beginning of the reversal at the global and national level.
From the international sphere, direct support to civil society, to keep people working, even in more restricted space, is important. Their work may contract now because of the pressure, but can expand again when conditions allow. If they are forced to close down, that is a major loss. So, there is a need to support them to stay alive in every possible way.
Beyond this, civil society in countries that are more influential internationally - the US, Russia, UK, France - has a huge role to play with their own governments, which are responsible in many ways for the repressive and authoritarian turn taken by regimes in many parts of the world, by turning a blind eye and being an accomplice in repression. We can be happy, for example, that Germany takes Syrian refugees, but we should not accept that with all its economic power Germany hasn’t done more about what’s happening in Syria or Yemen. These are countries that sell arms that go principally to the Middle East. Civil society in these countries has to do more, and not just offer platitudes.
Civic space in Egypt is rated as ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.