Amid the reopening of a 2011 case that was levelled against 109 NGOs operating in Egypt, both local and foreign, a number of prominent rights groups and figures have come under increased scrutiny. Among these are Hossam Bahgat, the founder and former head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and currently an investigative journalist who has long documented state violations.
In November 2015, the investigative journalist received a summons from the Military Intelligence for questioning, and was interrogated for two days over an investigative report entitled “A Coup Busted?” which reveals documents about the trial of a group of military officers who attempted and failed to launch an internal coup. He was accused of “spreading false news that would harm national interest”.
Come this March, Bahgat found himself accused of illegally receiving foreign funding in the reopened 2011 case. Ahead of the court ruling on Wednesday that will decide on accepting a lawsuit calling for freezing his assets, Daily News Egypt interviewed the journalist to discuss the reopened case. The discussion also extended to the problems faced by civil society, and his expectations of a new draft law governing the work of NGOs.
Civil society organisations have been subject to numerous overhauls, either facilitating or restricting their work. Can you share your evaluation of past five years since the revolution?
I believe the conditions facing civil society organisations have not changed significantly. They [the government] are still operating under the law of 2002, which has been active since the Mubarak regime. Also, the employees of the ministry [of social solidarity] and National Security officers tasked with monitoring NGOs’ operations are still the same. None of them has changed.
The conditions NGOs face underwent a ‘roller coaster’ in the past five years. Before the revolution, the majority of the NGOs were not registered with the ministry, which left them to face harassment. Thus, at the time, NGOs focused more on documentation and research.
Nevertheless, in the first six months after the revolution, we [civil society members] were allowed to participate in formulating the NGOs draft law, attend discussion on the restructuring of the interior ministry—we were even allowed to appear on television. Most importantly, our movement was not completely restricted, as was the case before the revolution. No doubt all this was happening without connection to the security forces for permission.
Under the Muslim Brotherhood regime, several meetings were held with NGO members and several statements were made regarding the amendment of the NGO law. Moreover, NGOs were not subjected to harassment by the security apparatus.
At the time, some claimed that, during the six months after the revolution, the government was supportive of NGOs in a bid to curry favour with the people. Do you agree?
No, the state was never supportive of civil society organisations. We can say that, during those six months, there was simply cooperation, which was not intentional, but simply arose because there was absolute freedom of movement in the country at the time.
However, all this ended after the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ statements in the summer of 2011 claiming that there is a conspiracy between the NGOs and foreign governments and charging the 6 April Movement with treachery. The former minister of planning and international cooperation, Fayza Aboul Naga, took responsibility for opening the [NGOs’ foreign funding] case after claiming that she had learned that some civil society organisations illegally received EGP 1.3bn from the United Sates.
What is your assessment of the current status of NGOs, amid the security crackdown?
After 3 July 2013 [the date that marks the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi], we became the direct enemies of the state and conditions became worse than during the Mubarak regime, as during Mubarak regime we suffered restrictions and media falsification. But we were not rejected by the state apparatus as we now are.
Moreover, after 3 July, the regime concentrated on controlling and eliminating all opposition voices. The regime’s first target was the media, which was immediately altered by silencing certain voices and controlling others. The second target was the elimination of all opposing political parties, including the 30 June Movement, by prison sentences and the introduction of the Protest Law.
It further attempted to close down the political sphere for activists and youth by issuing the Egyptian Constitution of 2014 and then putting off the presidential elections.
I believe that we [NGOs] are their third target, and, if they succeed in eliminating us, their fourth goal will definitely be targeting the closure of all social media platforms, ie the last option left for us to speak up. If they do manage to close it, everything will be over and nothing will remain for us.
Do you think the media campaigns that were launched against the civil society organisations caused people to refrain from supporting NGOs?
Ironically, regarding the reopening of the [NGOs’ foreign funding] case of 2011, the media campaign is obviously calmer than it was before due to the gag order that was declared early on in the investigation by judge Hesham Abdel Maged.
Certainly, the continuous media campaigns undertaken to distort our image have succeeded in making people who were previously cooperative with us by opening their homes to us withdraw, and to rethink and reconsider being cooperative with us, and question our NGOs’ work, goals, and funding.
Also, at the time, all civil society workers, including myself and other opposition figures, were blacklisted and banned from appearing on television. Our colleagues or friends working in television sector even informed us that they received orders prohibiting them from hosting us. Nonetheless, during the Muslim Brotherhood regime, we returned to political scene. We were monitoring and documenting the Brotherhood government’s violations, which made us welcomed again by the people, since there was a sense of rejection and rage towards the Brotherhood’s rule.
What is your current role with the EIPR? Were you the only member of the EIPR who was summoned for investigations?
I’m running a volunteer position, as the chairman of the board of trustees.
No one from EIPR, including me, has yet been investigated. Even Gamal [Eid] and members of his organisation [the Arab Network for Human Rights Information] have not undergone investigations. However, the two of us are the only members who faced legal action, as we were both recently banned from travelling and, then, we heard that our assets were frozen.
This time the situation is different—the case now mainly targets six or seven organisations, unlike at the beginning of the case in 2011, when there were 109 NGOs accused of receiving illegal foreign funding. The NGOs currently targeted are the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Nazra for Feminist Studies, the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, and the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and anti-Violence Studies.
What, in your evaluation, is the reason behind reopening the case at this time? Is it simply another attempt to distort the image of NGOs?
Firstly, the case was not just reopened now. It started again last year, when the general prosecutor ordered a travel ban for activist Esraa Abdel Fattah.
Secondly, I don’t think that reopening the case is a means of distortion, as much as it’s a way to get rid of six or seven NGOs that are causing disturbances to the state—either through closure, as with El Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence which faces no criminal accusations, but documents state violations.
Has the EIPR sent any memos to the ministry seeking clarification after discovering that it was included in the reopened case?
When the ministry announced the deadline of November 2014 for all NGOs to register under it, the EIPR immediately announced that it would register, and began the relevant procedures. However, the ministry was not cooperative and showed intransigence throughout the last year, even reaching the point of objecting to the organisation’s name.
However, after hearing about the reopening of the case, the EIPR sent a report to the ministry explaining their registration status, and criticised the ministry’s delay in completing the procedures, but we received no response.
Do you think Fayza Aboul Naga was behind the reopening of the case against NGOs?
We can only assume, since she has not spoken on the issue or even appeared on the scene until now. However, we can definitely assume that she has a role—this is her issue. Nonetheless, we cannot know for certain who is behind the reopening order.
What are your expectations regarding the proceedings of the case this time?
I believe 20 April will be a strong indicator for their intentions for us. Legally speaking, there are no reasons to prohibit us from using our assets. It is a drastic procedure for people who have not even been investigated yet.
If the court rejects the lawsuit calling for freezing our assets, this will mark a positive step, but if it approves the lawsuit, this can be viewed as purposeful legal ignorance, and will confirm the assumptions or speculations that they are targeting us.
If the lawsuit is approved, I expect that we will face investigations, followed by our referral to criminal court and prison.
Many have purported that the new NGO law will include more restrictions. What is your take on this?
Nobody is optimistic that, amid the current political conditions, a liberal law will be issued to facilitate the work of civil society.
Some people [advisors to the state] are urging the state to announce the new law and require all the NGOs to follow it to allow NGOs to arrange their affairs in accordance with the new law and penalise those who violate it, instead of [resorting to] the security crackdown through closure orders or the reopening of the case.
But I believe that the crises related to civil society, detainees, and professional associations will never be resolved on their own, or by easing restrictions. Everything will be resolved when we address our biggest problem, which is the dictatorship.
Based on your personal experience as an activist and a civil society worker, what are the disadvantages of the NGO law of 2002? What are your thoughts on the foreign funding system in Egypt?
There are two types of disadvantages: technical and practical. The technical side is that civil society is supposedly on par with the private sector, since it is not a sector affiliated to the state, despite that fact that it is still controlled by regulators.
The 2002 law gave the Ministry of Social Solidarity the right to approve or reject the foundation of a certain NGO, as well as the names of founders and the board of directors.
The law further imposes certain executive regulations that are against volunteer work, for instance granting the minister the right to close NGOs without a court order, or to approve or reject grants sent to NGOs. However, in reality, based on our experience, the minister does not really decide. The ministry’s role is simply to deliver our telegraphs to the intelligence and the National Security apparatuses to receive their approval or rejection.
According to law, the ministry is supposed to respond to our requests within 60 days, but it frequently exceeds the 60 days without any response. In such cases, when we return to the ministry to inquire as to the reason behind the delay, they explicitly state that it is because they did not receive the security apparatus’ decision for our request yet.
Sometimes, the ministry responds by summoning the petitioner for investigations in the National Security Apparatus’ headquarter to negotiate. This usually entails an ultimatum stating that if the petitioner wants to have a project approved, he/she must execute their demands. These could include providing them with information on a certain figure, or suspending certain employees, or to stop criticism against the state.
If we followed their demands on this manner, civil society would be no more than executive units for security demands.
The ministry said, in a report last week, that it has provided EGP 85m to 3,287 local NGOs across Egypt. What is your comment on this?
No doubt, the ministry is providing funds to many NGOs across the country. The ministry does not have any problem with organisations working in development services, and there are some rights organisations’ registered and receiving funding from the ministry, but this is simply because they do not pose any threat to the state. The ministry has a big problem with advocacy organisations that work on monitoring government activities and reporting its violations, since the state doesn’t consider that this advocacy is part of civil work.
What are your expectations for the country amid the current unstable conditions, restrictions on civil society and the press?
This is the question for the current stage. We are all certain that the current situation is not sustainable, because the regime is ruling without independent media, opposition, a true parliament, strong political parties, and without respect for human rights. Additionally, we are shifting from crisis to crisis, failure to failure, and crime to crime. I am sure the situation will continue but I cannot predict how it will end and what will come next. Regarding the press, we can see some freedom in terms of opinion articles, but there are more restrictions and problems with news reporting.