The case 173: A new maneuver by the Egyptian regime to circumvent human rights criticism

Since he took office in 2014, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi waged a merciless crackdown on the Egyptian civil society. Persecution and arrests soared up until leading human rights organizations warned, in a joint statement before the UN Human Rights Council, that Sisi seeks annihilation of civil society in Egypt. Egypt’s official attitude was intensified by law 149 of 2019, regarding the community associations, which restricted the activities of civil society to community development that has to be in line with the state’s plans. Egyptian civil society denounced the law, and described it “unconstitutional”.

One of the cases the Egyptian authorities used to persecute civil society activists is case 179 of 2011, which set out in July 2011 and was revived again in 2016. The case targeted civil society activists that have relations with international human rights networks. This month, July 2021, the investigative judge summoned a number of the accused activists for investigations, and leaks appeared on the tongues of defendants themselves and some media outlets affiliated to the regime that the Egyptian authorities thinks of closing this endless case.

An official, spoke in condition of anonymity, expected the state will close this case before the UN General Assembly in next September, and parallel to the release of National Strategy for Human Rights, which was indefinitely postponed.

The endless case

In July 2011, Mohamed Abdel Aziz al-Gendy, Egypt’s minister of justice then, ordered, at the direction of the Military Council, which assumed power then after January 25 Revolution, to investigate the unlicensed foreign finance to the civil society organizations in Egypt. The investigative committee recommended a judicial and criminal investigation over violations they found in this regard. Indeed, 2 investigative judges were appointed, and in February 2012, they referred 43 defendants, including 19 Americans, 5 Serbians, 3 non-Egyptian Arabs, and 2 Germans, to the criminal court on charges of receiving foreign finance using it in banned activities. A travel ban was ordered on the defendants.

Against international rage over the arrest of activists, the Military Council ordered the politically-directed Egyptian judiciary to abolish the travel ban on the foreign defendants without their Egyptian colleagues. And indeed, in March 2012, 16 foreign defendants departed Egypt on an American private plane. However, the case, which carried no. 173 of 2011, continued. In June 2013, 3 to 5 years imprisonment sentences were issued against 43 defendants with the foreigners of them in absentia. In addition, the court ordered closure of Egypt’s International Republican Institute, Democratic National Institute, Freedom House, International Press Institute, and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.

In 2016 with Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s crackdown on civil society, the case was re-opened arguing that new information was discovered about the affiliation of civil society organizations to the Muslim Brotherhood, and foreign finance to some organizations. In addition, the investigative judge addressed the tax authority to check some a number of organizations over tax evasion suspicions.

In September 2016, Cairo Criminal Court upheld a financial ban ordered by the investigative judge on the founder and ex-manager of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Hossam Bahgat, the manager of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, Gamal Eid, the manager of Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Bahey Eddin Hassan, the manager of the Egyptian Right to Education Center, Abdel Hafiz Al-Sayed, and the manager of Hisham Mubarak Law Center, Moustafa Adam. According to this ban, those activists were prevented from disposing of their stocks and properties. Later, Azza Suleiman, head of Centre for Egyptian Women Legal Assistance, and Mozan Hassan, head of Nazra for Feminist Studies.

In April 2018, the Court of Cassation approved appeals of 16 defendants in the case, most of them are foreigners, and abolished the imprisonment sentences against them. Months later, in December, Cairo Criminal Court, the same court that indicted them years ago, acquitted all of them. In parallel with Joe Biden presidency in USA, the Egyptian regime began steps towards closing the case. The first step was in December 2020 with the exclusion of 20 civil society organizations from the case due to “insufficient evidence.”

A new maneuver

Over the past years, the Egyptian authorities used to make initiatives to improve human rights situation in Egypt, but while such initiatives unfold over the days, they appear as mere tricks to circumvent criticism and international pressure. Al-Sisi manipulates courts to persecute or to release any activist or opponent annoying him. This absolute power makes reform meaningless.

Al-Sisi learnt only one lesson form January 25 Revolution, it is that freedom is dangerous, and civil society in particular creates a strong independent society before the state, that could combat tyranny. Accordingly, it is hardly probable that Sisi could make a step towards acceptance of civil society and its necessary role in developing society.