Egypt's crackdown on rights groups reverberates in region

Law could immobilize human rights movement. Other states may follow suit.

Since the human rights movement began in the Arab world more than a decade ago, Egypt's has been recognized as the strongest. The groups that proliferated here have served as crucial political opposition to the government.

But now a string of events - including legislation awaiting action by parliament - has many fearing that the Egyptian human rights movement is in danger. It's also feared that human rights advocates in other Arab countries may soon face challenges as well.

"A crackdown on Egypt means a crackdown for the whole region," says Hafez Abu Saada, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR). Mr. Abu Saada was arrested Dec. 1 and detained for six days for allegedly receiving foreign funds with the intention of "harming national interests."

Thirteen years ago, the human rights agenda - freedom from political persecution, freedom of association, and freedom of expression - was too explosive for formal discussion in the Arab world. Instead Egyptian activists and representatives from other Arab countries flew to Cyprus to establish a regional organization.

Some of the fledgling national organizations that came out of that regional conference were shortlived. In Egypt's case, however, the organization survived and has spawned a host of other groups in the 1990s.

"Human rights groups have become the last resort for critiquing Egypt," says Bahey el-Din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. "The position of political parties has been contained and marginalized. There's no serious critique of the government."

Rights violations on the rise

Reports of gross human rights violations in Egypt have increased in recent years, culminating in a letter from New York-based Human Rights Watch in November that appealed to President Hosni Mubarak to acknowledge and stop the "widespread" use of torture by the country's security forces.

Activists say Abu Saada's detention came as a form of punishment for a report published by the EOHR in late September. That report described the mass arrest and torture of residents in the predominantly Christian village of El Kosheh in Upper Egypt.

Western countries often maintain that Coptic Christians are a persecuted minority in Egypt, despite denials from prominent Copts. The EOHR was adamant to point out that the alleged abuse and torture it documented in El Kosheh was a matter of police brutality.

"The government knows perfectly well that the EOHR said it was not a matter of religious persecution. They used what happened in El Kosheh and the response to it in some foreign circles as a golden opportunity to mobilize public opinion against the human rights community in general," says Mr. Din Hassan.

The more immediate reason for Abu Saada's arrest was an investigation undertaken after a series of articles appeared in November in the private weekly El Osboa, a paper widely seen to be doing the government's work.

The articles accused the EOHR of accepting a $25,703 check from the British Parliament's human rights committee in return for publishing what the paper claimed was a false report on religious persecution in El Kosheh. Documents from the British Embassy in Cairo and the EOHR indicate the check was to continue funding a program of legal aid for Egyptian women.

Restrictive legislation

Meanwhile, legislation will come before parliament this session that could effectively immobilize the human rights movement in Egypt. The law would empower the government to intervene in board decisions of nongovernmental organizations such as human rights groups; to acquire direct control over these organizations by requiring them to submit projects and funding proposals for approval; and to dismiss board members it finds objectionable.

"The new law is extremely ugly," says Yehia al-Rifaie, one of the country's most eminent judges and honorary chair of Egypt's Judicial Club. "And it's unconstitutional." Egypt's Constitution guarantees the right to establish a nongovernmental organization and to participate in NGO activity.

"It appears that the Egyptian government is trying to intimidate and silence the voices that continue to expose its grave human rights record," said Hanny Megally of Human Rights Watch in a statement this month.

Ripples are already being felt in other Arab countries. In Yemen, for example, a law on voluntary associations was drafted by the human rights community. A counterlaw was then drawn up by the government, and both laws were to go to parliament.

But when the Egyptian government drafted its restrictive law, says Abu Saada, Yemen quickly followed suit, and the other two laws were withdrawn.

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