Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
3 - 9 August 2000
Issue No. 493
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Destitute but determined

By Amira Howeidy

The scene at the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights' (EOHR) headquarters in Cairo's Al-Manial district on Tuesday morning was very telling of the dismal situation the group has reached. Despite the painful heat, the organisation's employees would not turn on the air-conditioning and contented themselves with one electric fan. Responding to complaints by the sweating reporters, one EOHR official shrugged his shoulders and said: "We can't afford the electricity bill; our telephone line has been cut off because we didn't pay the telephone bill."

Penniless, to the extent of not affording to pay the staff salaries, the EOHR received a severe blow on Sunday when the Social Affairs Ministry refused to grant it a licence. Not only would such a license have provided it with a legal status to function, but it would also have allowed it to draw money donated by foreign development agencies from its bank account. However, the EOHR's quest for legality, which began in 1990, is set to continue.

According to the organisation's Secretary-General Hafez Abu Se'da, the Social Affairs Ministry's First Undersecretary, Mohamed Abdel-Moneim Tawfik, informed him on 26 July that the EOHR has been registered as an NGO with license number 461. He added that the EOHR was due to receive the license last Sunday. Instead, it received a letter -- copies of which the EOHR made sure every reporter attending the press conference received -- informing them that "the administration will postpone its decision of registering [the EOHR] at the request of the security authorities."

The EOHR, which has been maintaining a relatively low profile for the past few months as it prepared its registration papers, is now back to square one. "We'll contest the Social Affairs Ministry's decision with the Administrative Court," Abu Se'da stated.

But, as a lawyer, he is the first to know that this is only another legal battle the EOHR may never win if there is no political will to legalise the 15-year old organisation.

The EOHR first applied for a license in 1990 under Law 32 for 1962. Following year-long negotiations with the Social Affairs Ministry, the EOHR's application was rejected because the ministry saw that its existence was not needed. In 1991, the organisation filed a lawsuit with the Administrative Court, seeking legality, but lost. Since then, the Supreme Administrative Court has been considering the case.

Meanwhile, another NGO law, No 153 for 1999, was passed by parliament and, although the EOHR had deep misgivings about the restrictions it would impose on its funding and activities, it decided to comply with it. On 24 May, the EOHR submitted the papers necessary for registration. According to Law 153, the Social Affairs Ministry must respond within 60 days from the date it received the papers or else the application would be considered accepted. However, no response was received.

The Supreme Constitutional Court declared Law 153 unconstitutional on 3 June. A complicating factor? Not to Abu Se'da, who believes that since the EOHR had completed all the necessary paperwork and waited for the 60 days for the Social Affairs Ministry to respond, regardless of whether the law was declared unconstitutional or not, "then we have a legal right to be registered."

But they haven't been, and Abu Se'da blames it all on the "added limitations clamped on the exercise of democracy." These, he said, are manifested in the Political Parties Committee's decision to freeze the Islamist-oriented Labour Party and suspend its newspaper and the arrest of NGO figure Saadeddin Ibrahim five weeks ago.

"In both cases the accusations were the same: receiving foreign funding without notifying the authorities. This is what we were charged with once," he said.

Abu Se'da was arrested briefly in 1998 for accepting foreign funding, a cheque from the British Embassy to finance one of the EOHR's programmes for women, without government approval. Earlier this year, the case was re-opened on prosecutor orders, while Abu Se'da was on a business trip to Paris. Rumours spread quickly then that he was not coming back and will seek political asylum out of fear of being re-arrested on his return home. However, Abu Se'da's case was closed and he returned to Egypt. Since then, and until Tuesday morning, the EOHR was maintaining a prudent discourse when it came to the government.

To date, only two rights groups have been registered: the Human Rights Legal Aid Centre (CHRLA) with the Social Affairs Ministry and the Arab Organisation for Human Rights (AOHR) with the Foreign Ministry.

The EOHR's board of trustees will hold an emergency meeting soon to determine the organisation's next move, given its destitute situation.


Related stories:
Rights at a crossroads- 18 - 24 May 2000
Old cheque bounces back - 17 - 23 February 2000
EOHR is back - 24- 30 December 1998
Rights in crisis - 3-9 December 1998

Related sites:
The Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights

 

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