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State control and sham trials: Egypt's civil society is 'under siege'

Egypt's 'foreign funding case' is set for retrial, but critics say 'it's too little too late,' as their reputations have already been smeared
Some Egyptians on trial for charges for receiving illicit foreign funds to operate unlicensed NGOs appear behind a cage in a courtroom during their trial in March, 2012 (AFP)

CAIRO - Life was turned upside down for Farouk* when he was forced to leave a six-year career in political development behind in late 2011, and start over in a completely different field. 

At that time, Egypt was in the midst of an uprising that led to the overthrow of long-time president Hosni Mubarak, and the military rulers who replaced him began targeting foreign NGOs who they saw as fomenting unrest. A number of NGOs and their staff were charged with undermining national security.

In 2013, Farouk and 42 others were convicted of operating unlicensed NGOs and receiving foreign funding with the intention of harming national security in a trial commonly known as the “foreign funding case”. The Egyptian and foreign defendants were sentenced to between two and five years in prison - mostly in absentia - as well as one-year suspended sentences. 

“This case forced me to completely leave a career in political development that I cared for, and a job that I loved,” Farouk, who worked for Freedom House, an American NGO, told Middle East Eye.

US national Robert Becker, an employee of the National Democratic Institute, stands inside a courtroom cage in Cairo with his Egyptian co-accused in March, 2012 (AFP)
Last week, the Egyptian Court of Cassation overturned the jail sentences handed down to 16 of the defendants and ordered a retrial of the case. The court's ruling came as a result of an appeal filed by the staff of international civil society organisations who had been given suspended jail terms in June 2013.

Local Egyptian NGOs see the development as a “positive step”. However, this sentiment is not echoed by all of those involved in the case.

“The cancellation of the verdict on Thursday may have been good in theory, but to me, it makes no difference at all,” Farouk said. “I actually would have preferred that the issue had not been brought up again in the first place.”

It is a political [case] that was fabricated by the Mubarak regime and its minister of justice as a way of seeking revenge on civil society organisations for their position regarding the January 25 revolution

- Gamal Eid, director of ANHRI

Farouk explained that the case had originally been very stressful for him, but when the verdict came with a suspended sentence, meaning he wouldn't have to spend any time in jail, he considered himself lucky and “stopped thinking about it completely and tried to move on”. He added that he would like to focus on his new career in healthcare, rather than go through another trial.

Another defendant, who asked to remain anonymous for security concerns, is also against the re-opening of the case.

"The issue had been buried. We had gotten accustomed to the situation, and had started over career-wise," the defendant told MEE, explaining that the most difficult part of the ordeal was applying for other jobs with the case looming over them.

The defendant explained that the fact that their names were associated with the case made employers hesitant to hire, adding that it made working within Egyptian civil society impossible since technically there is now a criminal record, "even though everyone knew it was a politically driven case and not a legal one".

'Too little too late'

Negad El-Boraie, the lawyer working on the case, said that in the next round, defendants "will definitely not face harsher sentences but may receive the same sentences or lighter ones."

All those earlier trials were almost useless

- Negad El-Boraie, lawyer

“All those earlier trials were almost useless,” he said. “It is actually almost funny.” According to Boraie, the court has basically ruled that the earlier trials were "illegitimate".

According to a joint statement by rights groups involved in the case, the court ruling was based on “fabricated security allegations” cited by a fact-finding committee that was formed by the Cabinet in 2011. 

The case “fell so far below the minimum standards of fairness and due process that one of the investigative judges felt compelled to recuse himself from the case,” the statement read.

The judge, Ashraf al-Ashmawy, said in an interview with state-owned al-Ahram newspaper, that he withdrew from the investigations after the American defendants in the case were allowed to leave the country on a private plane during the trial. He added that he never accused any Egyptian of wrong doing and that "the falsity of the charges against them (the Egyptian defendants) became apparent."

For Boraie, the verdict is “too little too late”.

“The damage has already been done. These people have already had their reputations smeared. They have had a corrupt and unjust media campaign against them, and all of the organisations that they had been working for have been shut down and are no longer working in Egypt,” he said.

If they want to return, they still have to put up with a retrial, so most likely, they won’t return. Why would they? 

- Negad El-Boraie, lawyer

At the time of the trial, the media rhetoric centred on claims that civil society organisations were a gateway for foreign intervention, and accused human rights defenders of espionage.

A life of exile

In 2013, when the sentences were handed down, many of the defendants had already left Egypt and received their sentences in absentia. The directors and senior staff were sentenced to two to five years, mostly in absentia, while other staff who remained in the country were given one-year suspended sentences.

The court also ordered the closure of the organisations in question.

Many of the defendants, including at least 15 Americans, are already abroad. “If they want to return, they still have to put up with a retrial, so most likely, they won’t return. Why would they?” Boraie said.

Part of the damage that the case has caused some of the defendants is the forced exile it pushed them into. One such case is that of Egyptian national Nancy Okail, former director of Freedom House, who received a five-year sentence in absentia.

“She had to leave her two children and both her parents passed away after she left,” Boraie said.

Nancy Okail, executive director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, speaks at the 2017 Concordia Annual Summit at the Grand Hyatt New York in September, 2017 (AFP)

Okail, who is now is now the Executive Director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, has been based in the US for five years and cannot return due to the sentence handed down to her.

“While I am lucky to have not spent the past five years in a prison cell, I have had to accept a life in exile, which is a struggle of its own. I left my family and my entire world behind when I came to Washington,” she wrote in an opinion article in the Washington Post last June.

Local NGOs on the chopping block

The case has two tiers: in 2011, the court only targeted foreign organisations, but in 2016, the case was reopened as a Cairo Criminal Court looked into charges against local organisations and human rights workers.

The case included Hossam Bahgat, founder of the Egyptian Initiative of Personal Rights (EIPR), Gamal Eid, lawyer and director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), as well as directors and staff members of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), and Nazra for Feminist Studies, among others.

Others believe the annulment of the verdict might not necessarily be good news for the local NGOs.  

Mohamed Zaree, who heads the Egypt country office of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), poses in Cairo in October, 2017 (AFP)
“They got rid of all the foreign organisations, and then in 2014, with the rise of Sisi to power, they took the case off the shelf and targeted local NGOs,” said Mohamed Zaree, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, who is involved in the case. 

Egypt-US politics

Zaree, Boraie and other human rights lawyers reckon that the 2011 case had originally been driven by foreign policy and tensions in Egypt-US relations.

“It was all about suspicions that the US would stop giving Egypt funding, and the Egyptian government basically took all these Americans and the Egyptians that worked in these organisations hostage,” said Zaree, who won the 2017 Martin Ennals Award, a prize given each year by a jury of 10 global rights groups.

They got rid of all the foreign organisations, and then in 2014, with the rise of Sisi to power, they took the case off the shelf and targeted local NGOs 

- Mohamed Zaree, human rights defender

According to Boraie, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, then de-facto ruler of Egypt, “wanted to teach the Americans a lesson for not standing with Mubarak during January 2011”. 

Last year, the US decided to deny $95.7m in aid and to delay a further $195m of the $1.3bn it gives Egypt annually. The US decision was based on Egypt's reluctance to make progress on respecting human rights.

Since seizing power in 2013 from President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has led a crackdown on his opponents that has seen hundreds killed and thousands jailed. Egypt says the measures are necessary for national security and that hundreds of soldiers and police have been killed.

For Eid, the human rights lawyer and defendant in the case, the trial was a way to get back at civil society organisations for supporting the 2011 uprising. 

“It is a political [case] that was fabricated by the Mubarak regime and its minister of justice as a way of seeking revenge on civil society organisations for their position regarding the January 25 revolution," he said.

Renowned human rights activist Gamal Eid (2L) leaves a Cairo courtroom as an Egyptian court examines a request to issue a travel ban and freeze his assets and those of fellow rights activist in April, 2016 (AFP)
According to Eid, local organisations are “under siege”.  

State harassment of local civil society organisations has become commonplace over recent years. Eid, Zaree and the other defendants have been banned from travel for two years. Zaree was interrogated and released on bail of 30,000 Egyptian pounds (approximately $1,700), pending investigations. CIHRS have also had their assets frozen in the same case.

“I am accused of receiving foreign funding with the intention of harming national security, and the penalty could be 25 years in jail, essentially a life sentence,” Zaree said.

Egypt is a state that wants to expel civil society organisations, regardless of their shape and size. The state has an obsession with control

- Mohamed Zaree, human rights defender

Eid’s personal funds have also been frozen. At least 28 human rights defenders involved in the same case are either banned from travel, have had their assets frozen, or both, according to Zaree.

“ The state has an obsession with control," Zaree said. “Now that CIHRS is not allowed control of its finances, how are we going to pay our researchers their income? How will we pay the rent for the space?"

“We are still working. We are working from home as volunteers, but in the end, even though we are working, these decisions are really affecting us," he added.

CIHRS relocated its headquarters to Tunisia in 2014, as a result of government pressure.

Eid also lamented that “some of the researchers within these organisations have left their jobs because they are afraid”.

Ultimately, Zaree explained that the foreign funding case has highlighted two main things.

“First, that the state has a lot of animosity and hatred towards civil society, and second, that the judiciary in Egypt is completely politicised.”

For Boraie, “the case started with politics and it will end with politics.”

*The name has been changed to protect the identity of the defendant.

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