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Egypt's civil society workers face arrests, travel bans as state tightens grip

Rights advocate latest to be caught in crackdown before Egypt's parliament passes controversial NGO law
Aida Seif El-Dawla (far left) looks across to Gamal Eid and Hossam Bahgat (far right) in court on 17 September, 2016 (Mohamed ElRaai/MEE)

A senior Egyptian women's right advocate was arrested on Wednesday morning in an on-going crackdown on civil society activists in Egypt.

Azza Soliman, founder of the Center for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance (CEWLA), was reportedly arrested over a lawsuit regarding her NGO's funding. Several hours later she was released on bail worth $552.

"This case has been based on falsified information from background checks from the National Security and Intelligence, all of which did not contain any correct information but contained Facebook posts and statements that CEWLA had signed – which are of no significance," Soliman's lawyer, Mokhtar Moneer told MEE.

Gamal Eid (left) and Hossam Bahgat (right) after the verdict about their lawsuit regarding the foreign funding on 17 September 2016. (Mohamed ElRaai/MEE)

The judge appointed to Soliman's primary investigations will maintain the right to summon her at any time to continue investigations, Moneer said.

After completing the investigations and listening to further testimonies from other public figures, the judge will decide whether the case will be transfered to the Criminal Court or archived altogether.

"The decision to arrest Soliman was very shocking, and I personally consider it an indirect message from the state that the treatment of civil society leaders won't be like it was before," Soliman's lawyer said.

In the past, if the authorities wanted to summon a civil society leader, they would do so from their offices. This time, Soliman was summoned from her home.

Soliman has also been banned from travelling, and her bank account has been frozen.

Soliman is only one of several civil society leaders who have been confronted with such a fate recently.

On 23 November, Aida Seif El-Dawla, director of the El-Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, was banned from travelling to Tunisia to attend a conference on the rehabilitation of torture victims in North Africa. In a similar fashion, her bank account was frozen shortly after.

"We are a registered clinic, we are still working and we have a lawsuit filed at the Administrative Court in an appeal against shutting down the clinic," Seif El-Dawla told MEE.

People hold posters in solidarity with El-Nadeem Centre, poster on the left reads: "Do you want to suffocate our voice? Be more afraid of our silence." (Mohamed ElRaai/MEE)
An 'execution permit'

All these bans were imposed prior to parliament passing a controversial law that is allegedly meant to organise the work of NGOs and civil institutions but which activists claim allows the state to target NGOs it finds politically threatening. 

MP Nadia Henry, who is a member of the parliament's Economic Committee, warned that "the law, with all its articles, doesn't allow community work and thus doesn't let us make use of community work."

She clarified that everyone calls for national security and transparency and therefore accepts surveillance and tracking, but Henry feels the law shouldn't be restrictive in this manner.

"Security solutions are always easy, but they have a very high cost. They will cost us so many of the civil society forces which are the most affective in helping the impoverished, fighting corruption and protecting the consumer," she said.

Seif El-Dawla said the only thing that civil society knows is that there will be an apparatus established that, along with other governmental and nongovernmental representatives, would include the Ministry of Defense, the Intelligence departments and the Ministry of Interior.

"In my opinion, these members are not welcome in this matter," she said. 

However, MP Mohamed Abu Hamed, the deputy of the parliamentarian Committee of Solidarity, rejected their arguments.

"The security entities are not political entities that would be interested in anything other than the security backgrounds of these NGOs," he said.

A press conference after the attempted police raid of El-Nadeem Centre, on 21 February 2016. (Mohamed ElRaai/MEE)
He argued that the world is now familiar with this strategy, especially after the terror wave that hit Europe the last few years.

"Before we even discussed this law in the general assembly, we heard the news of Belgium shutting down around 60 NGOs because they represented a threat to the national security according to security reports," he said.

But Seif El-Dawla even criticised the bill's preface, which states that the organisation's activity should feed into the state’s vision on development.  

"We're living this vision every day and [are] very much acquainted with it; from the flotation of the Egyptian pound [in November], to the acceleration of prices, to the fall of alarming numbers of people below the poverty line, the arrests of workers and releasing them on the condition of having to quit their jobs," she said.

"All this doesn't sound very much like development."

Henry and Seif El-Dawla are also concerned about the problem of ambiguous terms in the law's text, such as penalisations for "breaking the national unity".

"The law has some articles that restrict community work and would seem intimidating to civil society, since there are punishments that would deprive the liberty of volunteer workers," he said.

"The punishments would reach up to a prison sentence or a fine up to EGP 1 million."

Even "a threat to national security" has a level of ambiguity to it. 

"During the drafting process of the executive regulations of the law, they will try to include some definitions to terms that people felt were imprecise," said Abu Hamad.

Bans without an explanation

Esraa Abdel-Fattah, a human rights activist and the co-founder of the now-banned 6 April movement, has been banned from travelling since January 2015.

She was heading to her flight for Germany, when a police officer stopped her, breaking to her the news of the travel ban. She claims to not have been notified before this incident.

"I still haven't received any documents that state the reason behind my almost two-year travel ban,” Abdel-Fattah told MEE. "But what is being said unofficially that it is all part of the lawsuit of foreign funding or case number 173. However, the state hasn't given me any official documents that prove that."

Also, human rights lawyer and director of the Lawyers Network at the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, Malek Adly, was banned from travelling on 2 November despite being released from jail in late August.

He was arrested in May on the background of public controversy and protests against the Red Sea islands maritime border demarcation deal signed between Egypt and Saudi Arabia in April.

Adly worked with a team of lawyers led by a former presidential candidate, Khaled Ali, which later obtained a verdict from the State Council in June nullifying the deal.

When asked about his legal situation, he said the charge against him regarding the travel ban still remains a mystery. 

"We don't have any information, and all the official bodies we contacted to to find out didn't give us any information either," he told MEE.  

Another story is that of Gamal Eid, a lawyer and founder of the Arab Network of Human Rights Information.

Eid, who is also the founder of Al-Karama libraries, which are located in and serve impoverished areas, has been banned from travel since 4 Februrary. 

The police raided two of the Al-Karama charity-funded libraries in Tora and Dar al-Salam, and when they were about to raid the third they found it closed. Eid gave his employees at the three remaining libraries leave and temporarily closed them down to avoid further raids.

"Until now we haven't received any official decree regarding the libraries; they only told us it's their orders. We received an indirect message that told us to shut it down in order to retain the furniture, books and machines inside, but we haven't responded yet,” he told MEE.  

On 17 September, the Criminal Court ordered his assets to be frozen in relation to the NGO foreign funding lawsuit, also known as case number 173, which also concerns 40 other organisations.

State 'revenge'

Abdel-Fattah, who is also a journalist, gave reasons for the state's actions.

"The state has converted this precautionary measure - what the travel ban originally was - into an illegal method for revenge against all civil society activists who participated in spreading political awareness among the Egyptian people," she said.

"Some say that if we also remained silent, succumbed to this routine and colluded, the state would put an end to the procedures against us," argued Eid.

"But others argue that the state is punishing us for being an effective part of the 25 January revolution."

While Seif El-Dawla agrees with Abdel-Fattah, and sees the situation as deeply difficult in the short term, she is still optimistic.

"Despite being targeted by the state, the civil society is not giving up, they're still working. This injustice and oppression will never stay for long without being confronted with a response that equals its size and goes in the opposite direction to fight it."

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