Long way to go
Human rights organisations had little to celebrate on this year's Human Rights Day, writes Mariz Tadros
The New Woman Research Centre (NWRC), one of the first contemporary women's organisations to engage in advocacy for women's human rights, is 20 years old this year. NWRC grew from a gathering of like-minded feminists and activists to become one of the country's prominent women's organisations, most recognised for breaking the silence on taboo issues as domestic violence and reproductive health rights.
And yet the group is unable to officially register itself with the Ministry of Social Affairs -- despite the fact that an administrative court recently overruled the ministry's decision not to accept the NWRC's application on "security grounds".
Although the court made its decision on 28 October, the NWRC has been unable to obtain the ruling, without which it cannot present its case to the Ministry of Social Affairs, said Nawla Darwish, who heads the group's board of trustees. While their registration is thus technically still on hold, the group decided to celebrate its 20 years of work with a cultural event and the release of a statement meant to ring alarm bells in civil society at large.
"We wanted to let people know via this celebration that we are still here, working and moving on as ever," Darwish told Al- Ahram Weekly. The event featured two musical performances and paid special tribute to Adel Abu Zahra -- one of Egypt's most passionate advocates of women's, environmental and human rights, and co-founder of several NGOs -- who recently passed away.
Awards were also presented to three human rights activists: psychiatry professor Aida Seif El-Dawla, a co-founder of both NWRC and the Nadim Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, who was awarded the Human Rights Watch award last month, and has played an active role in human rights issues on both the Egyptian and Arab fronts; human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif El-Islam, a co-founder of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, and veteran of freedom of expression and association, workers' and political rights activism; and Hossam Bahgat, a younger human rights advocate who co-founded the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Freedom Association, which works in advocacy and research and legal assistance.
The celebrations, Darwish reminded the packed hall, were being held on the premises of the Upper Egypt Association, "in recognition of the role it played in the development of civil society". In 1999, the Upper Egypt Association was also host to the Forum for Civic Action, a coalition of over one hundred NGOs that participated in a campaign against the NGO Bill, the proposed Law 153. The Upper Egypt Association's participation, as one of the biggest and most renowned development organisations nationwide, in the 1999 campaign was seen as critically important towards undermining the official argument that those protesting against the law represented only a handful of human rights organisations. It also encouraged other development organisations to take part in the campaign.
The statement that was read out at the event reflected the change in the NGO climate that had taken place since then. The kind of collective civic mobilisation that took place in 1999 was gone, even though the current NGO legislation, Law 84, is thought to embody some of the most restrictive legal shackles of both Law 32 of 1964 and Law 153 of 1999. The statement sounded alarm bells regarding the increased vulnerability of NGOs when it came to the intervention of state security in their affairs, all under the umbrella of the Ministry of Social Affairs. The statement argued that, "since the release of the new law, tens of civil society associations have been prevented from registering. Individuals, too, have been prevented from expressing their free will in participating in establishing and joining civic associations -- both without justification or legal pretext."
One such case is the Helwan Centre for Social Services -- "Bashayer" -- which received a letter from the Ministry of Social Affairs stating that state security had no objection to the registration of the foundation, as long as two members were removed: Hala Shukrallah and Azza Kamel, both founders and members of the board of trustees. No explanation was given for state security's objection to these two candidates in particular. Bashayer has been working with marginalised groups in Helwan since 1984. At the same time, state security had no objections to the registration of the Egyptian Association for the Development of Volunteerism and Habi Foundation for Environmental Rights, despite the fact that Azza Kamel is on the board of both. Bashayer has decided to take the matter to court, on account of the fact that it is unconstitutional to prevent an individual from exercising his/her right to establish and manage civic associations without the intervention of the state security.
In the light of the increasing restrictions on civil society organisations, the statement urged the "commencement of a sustained campaign to defend civil action in Egypt". The campaign would involve activation of solidarity channels between NGOs and the formation of a delegation to meet with the Minister of Social Affairs to present her with a critique of the law, a call for the implementation of the principles of the NWRC court ruling on similar cases, and an emphasis on the importance of training Ministry of Social Affairs' employees in the proper implementation of the law. It also urged that an emergency committee be formed to act as a watchdog to document cases of state harassment of NGOs under the new law, and publicise such information as widely as possible. Following the release of Law 84 of 2000, such a committee was announced, but never materialised.
The statement was signed by 12 organisations, representing both newly founded and older human rights organisations, as well as a couple of development groups. Darwish explained that they were hard pressed to issue the statement on Human Rights Day, and did not have time to circulate it widely, although efforts are currently being made to gather more signatures. Nothing close to the solidarity shown in fighting Law 153 is expected. "We don't really expect to collect that many signatures. People are scared," sighed Darwish. With advocacy seen by the government as an expression of antagonism and confrontation, people have reason to be scared. Experts described the government's view of NGOs as being implementers of projects aimed at extending badly needed social services to the poor within the framework of the national agenda, rather than as watchdogs.
According to Hafez Abu Se'da, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) NGOs were embroiled in the registration process, and are now so engrossed in day-to-day survival that they don't have much time at the end of the day to work on other fronts. "For example, three months ago, the EOHR sought the Ministry of Social Affairs' permission to accept funding from abroad for one of our projects. To this day, we have not obtained permission. We have been corresponding this whole time, which is very exhausting." Abu Se'da believes that, other than being part and parcel of the normal bureaucratic red tape, such tactics are deliberately intended to weaken civil work.