A dark humor pervades the halls of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a leading local rights group headquartered in Cairo’s leafy Garden City district. Amid rows of tightly clustered desks, members rib each other about being out of a job soon or joke about taking pictures of the office to preserve the memories of their work there. Yet beneath the jocularity lies a palpable sense of foreboding.
Civil society groups across Egypt are braced for a crackdown in the wake of a November 10 government deadline to submit to regulations that give the state tight control over their activities and fundraising or face penalties that include up to a year in prison.
“Expecting an attack on civil society, particularly human rights organizations, makes perfect sense,” says Gasser Abdel Razek, EIPR’s associate director. “Very few dissenting voices are left, and one of these voices is the voice of human rights groups.”
A resurgent authoritarianism under the rule of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has left dissident activists and opposition groups feeling cornered, with little room to maneuver. Security forces have killed hundreds of demonstrators and jailed thousands more, many of them supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Leading revolutionaries are locked up. A sense of malaise plagues activist circles, with energies largely spent on supporting and advocating for the thousands of people in prison, most of them young. Street demonstrations—once a vibrant and effective political tool—have been shut down by police violence and a draconian protest law. The airwaves are dominated by pro-regime figures who demonize any critical voices, while journalists have been beaten, arrested and, in one high-profile case, sentenced to years in prison on terrorism charges.
Now, human rights groups feel their time has come.
In July, the government announced a deadline for all civil society groups to officially register under a restrictive Mubarak-era law. Law 84 of 2002 gives the state sweeping authority over staffing decisions, activities and funding. Under the Mubarak regime, many independent NGOs chose to register as companies or law firms to avoid the law’s restrictions. While they faced intimidation, censorship and occasional arrests, their existence was largely tolerated.
Human rights defenders say that era has come to an end.
“I don’t think we will continue to exist in six months the same way we exist today,” Abdel Razek says. His group, EIPR, is currently registered as a limited liability, for-profit company that pays its income taxes and social security. “I think this model will not live for very long.”
A further cause for alarm was Sisi’s move last month to amend Article 78 of the penal code to impose a life sentence against anyone who requests or receives foreign funding with the intention of “harming national interests” or commits acts that “breach the country’s independence, or unity”—vague language that NGOs, particularly human rights groups, fear could be used against them.