CAIRO: “The available margin for civil society in society and the media is shrinking, and on its way to disappearing as the current general atmosphere is different from past years,” said Mai el-Sheikh, the director of communications for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) Sunday.
A wave of concerns has arisen among civil society organizations following recent steps by the government to limit their independence, according to interviews conducted by The Cairo Post.
A Nov. 10 registration deadline has been given by the Ministry of Social Solidarity to the organizations, threatening to dissolve them if they do not adapt their regulations to the current Law 84 of Civil Associations. The law “seeks to consider the civil society as an extension of the government sector,” Sheikh added to The Cairo Post.
The law would allow the government to approve the boards of directors for civil society organizations and NGOs, appoint leaders and dismiss those it finds unacceptable.
“The current Law 84 already spoiled the civil society under [Hosni] Mubarak, and will demand of us to convert our law firms into civil associations regulated by the Ministry of Social Solidarity, which means a lack of independence,” Ahmed Ezzat, a human rights lawyer, told The Cairo Post Saturday.
“Any law curbing freedom that should be allocated for the organizations [to ease their work] is unconstitutional,” Sheikh said. “If the civil society is not independent from the government, how can it monitor the government’s performance?”
Law 84 part of emerging trend demanding obedience to gov’t
In another development also seen to be narrowing the independence of civil society and activists in the media, a number of satellite channels have announced they will restructure their programming by restricting their selection of guests. According to a Sunday statement by Al-Nahar TV channel, it will “prevent hosting guests who promote rumors against Egypt and its future.”
Al-Nahar’s decision, which runs in parallel with similar moves adopted by newspaper publishers, follows deadly militant attacks in the Sinai Friday that killed 31 soldiers and shocked the nation. The government has promised reprisals and emergency law and a curfew have been declared in North Sinai.
Any opinions that might “weaken the morale of the army” will not be permitted, Al-Nahar said.
“We are facing again drawn red lines,” Sheikh said, saying she believed the media’s renewed commitment to self-censorship will restrict freedom of speech.
Defending civil society in Egypt
As civil associations in Egypt find their work increasingly subject to government restrictions, eight human rights organizations—including the EIPR—have launched an initiative called “Civil Society: A Right for Me and You” to highlight their work and eliminate a stigma that it lacks transparency.
The initiative said on its Facebook account the campaign is necessary due to “the government regularly mounting a campaign against civil society since the Mubarak era.” It added current government crackdown attempts are “more violent than at any other time… and the media continues to defame and insult people with false information.”
It added that as the channels available for addressing the work of civil society gradually shrink, the initiative found it important to answer some of the masses’ questions about the work of the civil society and its important role in paving the way for the democratic process in the country.
What is civil society?
To answer this question, human rights lawyer Waleed Farouq said it is important to not limit the term to just human rights organizations.
“Civil society is anything outside the circle of the government sector. It is me, you, family, charity associations, syndicates, political parties and human rights organizations,” according to the definition provided by the initiative. “Civil society organizations are non-profit associations aimed at serving citizens independently from the government.”
According to the page, there are more than 16,000 civil society organizations operating in Egypt. These organizations are providing services the government is incapable of, including: health services, defending victims of torture and police assaults, nutrition for the poor and small loans for youth.
“We are not activists; we are rightists who are trained professionally. We go to our offices and work like any employee,” said the initiative’s Facebook page.
Operating in Egypt
“There was an improvement in the general atmosphere following the January 25 Revolution in 2011, where there were good signals after an agreement reached regarding a consensual draft law with former Social Solidarity Minister Ahmed el-Borai,” said Sheikh. “But there is no way this cooperation could be discussed now.”
Farouq referred to the ongoing political conflict as the main factor behind civil society becoming a favorite target for the government.
As the civil associations track violations against human rights, which are mainly committed by consecutive Egyptian governments during heavy political unrest, “animosity grew between them (civil associations) and the governments,” he told The Cairo Post.
Every new president who comes to power is “advised by his entourage that the largest dangers come from civil society,” Farouq added.
Also, recent history proves the huge impact of political unrest on some civil organizations, as thousands of non-governmental charities, mostly Islamic, were seized in December over using the donations to fund the Muslim Brotherhood. This decision followed an official declaration of the Brotherhood as a terrorist group, and its activities were banned and many of its supporters jailed.
Encountering treason accusations
Over the past few years, people working for civil society and NGOs have been accused of treason over foreign funding issues, according to Farouq.
Penal Reform Organization head Mohamed Zarea told The Cairo Post “thereafter, the government started questioning the intentions, loyalty, patriotism and the work provided by these civil organizations.”
Foreign funding is allowed under regulations set by the state, “but the government is using it as a scarecrow against the civil organizations,” commented EIPR member Sheikh. “The government wants to say that anyone receiving funding from a foreign entity equals a traitor, however, the state itself is receiving funds from foreign states.”
Sheikh also referred to a new amendment to the Penal Code passed in September that punishes receiving or requesting funds or weapons from a foreign country or organization with prison time and a heavy fine.
Many human rights activist and lawyers criticized the amendment as “broad and restrictive,” while others found it to be an effective means to punish terrorists.