CAIRO: Over the past two decades, the Egyptian political playground has experienced various political and social forces that helped create a platform for people to express their opinions freely without any restrictions.
These forces are the human rights organizations, the key civil players in Egypt. However, despite their growing number, their effectiveness is always brought into question; especially given the fact that Egypt stood before the Universal Periodic Review twice this year to review its current human rights condition.
The first human rights organization in Egypt, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), was founded in 1985.
“During the mid 80s and early 90s, there wasn’t any other human rights organization except EOHR … we had to work in complete objectivity,” said Tarek Zaghloul, executive director for EOHR.
Today Egypt is home to more than 40–50 human rights organizations with different agendas. “The topics have changed, now we fight for different causes and the internet helped facilitate our communication with various entities,” Zaghloul said.
Accordingly, human rights organizations in Egypt are divided into two groups. The first group works intensively on monitoring and exposing human rights violations and offering legal aid for individuals.
“People started to trust us [human rights organizations], when they file complaints and find that the NGOs are the ones that stand by them, assisting them with lawyers,” explained Zaghloul.
The role of human rights organizations includes lobbying the government to stop practices they consider abusive.
“There are two ways to pressure the government either through the court or through the media,” explained researcher Karim Abdul Rady, from the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI).
The second group works on civic education, raising awareness and publishing reports including annual reports. However, these organizations are not concerned with individual cases.
Governing Human Rights Organizations
Until 2002, Egyptian NGOs were governed by a law that was placed in 1946. But in 1999, the government began to discuss a law that pertained specifically to NGOs. Law No.153 was drafted by the government without consulting civil society entities and was sent to parliament for approval.
When the law was approved, it was deemed unconstitutional and was repealed by the Supreme Constitutional Court in 2000 for procedural reasons. Though repealed, this law laid the groundwork for Law 84/2002 which regulates the activities of human rights organizations as well as other NGOs.
Several activists from human rights organizations identified common legal measures taken by the government through the 84/2002 law to hinder their activity including registration limitations, funding restrictions, government oversight/monitoring and state control of media outlets.
“The law’s restrictions led many human rights organizations to work outside the association law, others working as non-profits or organizations that can be registered in Europe,” explained Moataza El Fegiery, executive director for the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS).
Restrictions also include the fact that the ministry has the unilateral right to shut down an NGO without a court order.
On September 7, 2007 the Egyptian government issued a decree in accordance with Article 17(2) of Law No. 84/2002 to shut down the Association for Human Rights and Legal Aid (AHRLA).
However, despite these challenges, human rights organizations say that now they have more freedom and space than before.
“But this space is not used properly by the civil society,” Moataz said.
Head to Head with the Government
Human rights organizations now believe they are in a position to challenge the government. They argue that the government is being faced with a reality that there is a human rights discourse, a national council for human rights and an international obligation to improve Egypt’s human rights record.
“It is our role to reveal and pressure the government in order to stop the violations,” explained Abdul Rady.
He explained that human rights organizations are the voice of victims of violations, they are the entity that can express the grievances of the people by engaging with the government on their behalf.
“It is important to explain that 20 years back, the government never approved of us, but in 2010 now we have an open dialogue with the government, we can condemn it and they also try to help,” explained Zaghloul.
The Rise of Human Rights Activism
“We declared defeat. Between 2007 and the end of 2009 we had three years of deterioration in the general situation of political liberties and public liberties,” explained Hossam Bahgat, founder and director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
After a period of relative freedom, between 2003–2006, Egyptian human rights organizations experienced a set back.
“It was from 2006 when judges demonstrated and then 2007 with the constitutional amendments and brutality in the name of counter terrorism that brought repression back,” explained Bahgat.
By the end of 2009 and beginning of 2010, many incidents took place that built on the activism momentum again on the Egyptian street.
Mohamed ElBaradei’s return to Egypt and entry into its political scene, the reappearance of the April 6 Movement, political parties’ discussion of the coming presidential elections as well as the rising number of protests on the Egyptian street, all contributed to the rise of human rights activism once more.
“In general there is a start for re-activism,” Bahgat said, noting that with that comes more government repression because they want to control this freedom.