CIVICUS speaks about the ongoing repression of dissent in Egypt with Ahmed Attalla, Executive Director of the Egyptian Front for Human Rights (EFHR).
Founded in 2017 and registered in the Czech Republic, EFHR is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes human rights in Egypt, with a specific focus on criminal justice, through advocacy, research and legal support.
What are the conditions for civil society in Egypt?
Civic space in Egypt has remained highly restricted for the past decade, with the authorities consistently targeting civil society activists, journalists, political dissidents and human rights advocates.
The 2019 NGO law restricts the rights of CSOs. It mandates their registration and enables the government and security forces to interfere in their operations and order the cessation of activities deemed sensitive by the government, such as monitoring human rights conditions and denouncing violations. Organisations registered under this law may also face funding restrictions.
Some CSOs had to shut down because the authorities targeted them with counter-terrorist measures or prosecuted their directors in Case no. 173 of 2011, commonly known as the ‘Foreign Funding Case’. In some instances, the directors of these organisations were prohibited from leaving the country and their assets were frozen. Some courageous organisations have persisted in their work even in the face of attacks against their directors and staff.
In September 2021, the government launched the National Human Rights Strategy, a propaganda tool aimed at concealing the human rights crisis ahead of hosting the COP27 climate summit in 2022. As part of this initiative, it took steps to release some political prisoners and engaged in a national dialogue that contained a broader spectrum of political actors, including civil society representatives.
How has Egyptian civil society organised in the face of repression?
Civil society has adapted to the ongoing repression in various ways. Many CSOs have decided to limit their public engagement and abstain from taking to the streets or limit their work to the provision of legal aid while refraining from undertaking research and international advocacy, especially with international human rights mechanisms. Other organisations have been forced to relocate their operations abroad to safeguard their staff and ensure the continuity and integrity of their work, which has had the opposite effect of facilitating their advocacy efforts with international mechanisms and among European Union (EU) member states.
In response to the continuous pressure, many organisations have started collaborating more closely. In 2019, EFHR coauthored a joint report with eight other CSOs for the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council and participated in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) session in which Egypt’s human rights record was examined. In 2023, we jointly submitted another report for Egypt’s UPR. We have also engaged in joint campaigns and participated in the formation of coalitions aimed at addressing specific challenges. Egyptian CSOs are increasingly recognising the importance of working together to amplify their impact and advocate for change.
How does EFHR work in such a repressive context?
When it was founded in 2017, EFHR was officially registered in the Czech Republic with affiliates in Egypt, where our team of researchers and lawyers provides crucial legal support by attending daily court hearings and working directly with victims of prosecution. We have successfully coordinated work between our overseas office and our colleagues based in Egypt. Our work focuses on issues that are ignored by the Egyptian authorities, including issues concerning criminal justice, detention conditions and gender-based violence.
We take various security measures to protect the identities of our staff. For instance, our research publications don’t include author names or contact details, and we maintain the anonymity of our legal team. These precautions give us some space to work and leverage our findings and expertise with international mechanisms, by engaging with UN Special Rapporteurs and working groups and collaborating with EU diplomats.
However, we have also faced some challenges. Three of our lawyers have been implicated in state security cases, facing accusations of affiliating with terrorist groups and potentially engaging in the use of force. We have managed to relocate other at-risk colleagues to ensure their safety. The same is happening to other Egyptian human rights organisations, whose members either managed to flee the country or were arrested and remained in prison for least two years.
How do you support Egyptian activists under threat?
We provide legal assistance to those who have been arrested or targeted by the authorities and take measures to ensure activists’ digital security and protect their anonymity, enabling them to continue their work. We collaborate with partners and foreign embassies to put pressure on the Egyptian government, but sometimes this doesn’t work.
Within Egypt, there are a few tools available to protect our colleagues at risk. Even political parties cannot protect their members in Egypt, so they also face regular detentions. Parties often attempt to exert pressure on the authorities to release arrested politicians but after releasing them the government arrests other members of the same organisations.
Are Egyptian activists safe in exile?
Activists who work from abroad are being targeted through their families. For example, the Egyptian-American human rights advocate Mohamed Soltan, who filed a case against former prime minister Hazem el-Beblawi, saw his five family members harassed and arrested as a result of his activism. A German resident, Alaa Eladly, was arrested upon landing in Cairo just because his daughter, Egyptian activist Fagr Eladly, criticised President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi president over human rights abuses at a 2015 press conference between the president and then German chancellor Angela Merkel . The father of Belgium-based journalist and human rights advocate Ahmed Gamal Ziada has recently been detained and accused of misuse of communication, spreading false news and joining a banned group. This strategy aims to silence activists and impose an even higher personal cost for doing their work.
What can the international community do to support Egyptian civil society?
To gain a comprehensive understanding of the situation in Egypt it is important to listen to the perspectives of local human rights defenders. Our international allies and partners must exert pressure on the Egyptian government to open civic space, stop targeting journalists, civil society activists and political figures and filing trumped up charges against them, and release all political prisoners detained for defending the fundamental rights to freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.
EU member states must revise their terms of cooperation with Egypt to prioritise human rights. For instance, they should include human rights considerations as a conditionality for providing financial aid. It is imperative to strike a balance between the interests of governments and the demands of Egyptian civil society. It is also essential to sustain financial support for Egyptian CSOs, especially now that the economic crisis has also hit civil society.
Civic space in Egypt is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.