Investigating Judge Hesham Abdel Meguid issued on Monday evening a gag order on the reopened case from 2011, known as the ‘NGOs’ foreign funding’ case.
The charges in the case, which was reopened last week for the first time in years, were filed against a number of NGOs for allegedly receiving foreign funds illegally.
The gag order prohibits any televised, online or printed media outlet to publish any news about the case until the judges announce a verdict in the case.
The reopened case is levelled against four defendants, including two prominent figures: activist Gamal Eid who is the executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) and journalist and rights activist Hossam Bahgat who is the founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
Other NGOs were involved in 2011 case, and were charged with receiving illegal funds from the European Union and the United States worth EGP 1.5bn and $500m. These included organisations such as Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute.
Eid commented on the order to Daily News Egypt, saying it is “illogical” as judges do not have the right to prohibit the press from publishing news except during the investigation process in cases. He added that investigations have not yet begun in the reopened case, and the order overlooks the fact that journalist are aware of their constitutional rights to publish freely.
The activist further contended that the gag order was somehow “orchestrated”, as it came after some false information was leaked by sources in the judicial sector.
Hours before the gag order, the privately-owned newspaper Al-Shorouk had published two legal memos submitted by Abdel Meguid to the Cairo Criminal Court to order the freezing of the defendants’ assets. The memos included the charges directed to Eid and Bahgat and the other two defendants, along with the legal grounding for the charges.
The charges reported in the two memos included that both Gamal and Bahgat participated activities that threaten national security and seek to destroy state institutions.
NGOs draft law amended: expert
In 2014, a 2002 law governing the activities of NGOs was enforced, imposing new regulations on NGOs. Under the law, NGOs had to register their activities with the Ministry of Social Solidarity or face closure, with the ministry having set 2 September 2014 as the deadline for NGOs to register, whereby the ministry has the right to reject the NGOs, thus forcing their closure.
Moreover, the law placed restrictions on the funding received by NGOs, whereby any funding from abroad must receive the express permission of a specialised committee before being released to the NGOS.
The law was widely criticised by rights organisations, both local and international, for imposing undue restrictions. In particular, the law was criticised for seeking to shut down organisations that pose a “threat to national security”, with critics denouncing the vague wording of such terms.
In 2015, an alternative NGO law was drafted by 57 local organisations. The draft law focuses on the idea of informing the government of existing NGOs, rather than seeking “permission”.
Mahmoud Farouk, the head of ECPPS, told Daily News Egypt: “There are two main points we want to change in the government law; the cancelation of the requirement for licences to establish NGOs or to receive foreign funding. Instead, we believe it is sufficient to simply notify the ministry. In addition, we demand other modifications granting and facilitating the NGOs’ rights and freedoms.”
Last December, the Egyptian Centre for Public Policy Studies (ECPPS) launched an initiative, including conferences and a petition, in an attempt to raise awareness about the draft law.
A petition was launched by the centre in late 2015, calling for the proposal of the draft law in parliament. The petition collected signatures from at least 60 NGOs and 40 public figures, including MPs such Mohamed Anwar Sadat, Amr El-Shobky and former government figures, such as former minister of social solidarity Ahmed Al-Boraie. The centre is also currently working on collecting signatures and support from celebrities and other prominent figures.
Former minister Al-Boraie submitted the NGO draft law to the cabinet during his time as minister, but it was later withdrawn after the appointment of current minister Ghada Wali. Sadat and other MPs have been assigned to present the NGOs draft law in the upcoming parliament session, to discuss the law.
Farouk explained to Daily News Egypt, that the centre focuses on receiving support from MPs to relay to them the problems NGOs face with the government’s law. As such, even if the draft law is rejected by parliament, the supporting MPs can push for amendments to the government’s NGO law.
“NGOs are currently suffering the worst conditions they have faced since the1980s, which hinders development work in Egypt. No criticism or attempts at improvement are welcomed by the state from NGOs,” Farouk said, referring to the status of NGOs under former president Mohamed Anwar Sadat. At the time, Sadat had effectively ended civil work and made all organisations affiliated to the government.
Farouk further noted: “Since 2011, numerous NGOs have been closed, including 60 local and a number of international ones. A small percentage is present currently, and these suffer from ongoing violations and restrictions.”
“NGOs that work in development and human rights are the ones struggling the most in Egypt. However, organisations focused on education are also facing restrictions and closure orders,” Farouk said.
He further highlighted the case of activist Negad El-Boraie, who was investigated early March for ‘working with an illegal NGO’, but was later released. Farouk contended that the real reason behind investigating El-Boraie was for creating a draft law against torture and calling on the president to activate it.
While both Eid and Farouk contended that the ministry of social solidarity is officially responsible for NGOs’ issues, it is in fact the National Security Apparatus that is mentoring and controlling the registration of NGOs and their activities in the country. Eid also said that many NGOs’ projects are postponed or rejected by the ministry upon orders from the National Security Apparatus.
In the wake of the reopened case, three staff members of Nazra for Feminist Studies received summons for investigations on Sunday, without being informed of the reasons.
In addition to the NGOs law, it is widely perceived that the state has been engaged in an ongoing crackdown on NGOs, with numerous recorded cases of NGO workers being arrested or banned from travelling, among other restriction.
In one of the most recent cases, the El Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture received a closure order, purportedly for being licensed as clinic while operating as a rehabilitation centre. Head of the centre Laila Adly later claimed that they had learned, during a meeting with the Ministry of Health, that there had been coordination between the cabinet and the ministry to close El Nadeem for “political reasons”.
“If the current regime continues down the same track, we can expect the definite end of NGOs and civil society,” Farouk concluded.