Egyptian police forces ransacked the offices of a nongovernmental organization with ties to the labor movement overnight, signaling that the government crackdown has moved beyond its main Islamist opponents.
The Egyptian Centre for Social and Economic Rights (ECSER), founded by former presidential candidate and leading leftist lawyer Khaled Ali, has worked extensively with Egypt’s labor movement, the power of which has been a thorn in the side of successive governments.
Today's raid represents another escalation of the pressure that has been building since the July military coup. Rights groups have reported coming under increased scrutiny in the months since former president Mohamed Morsi was pushed from office.
The streets around ECSER’s downtown Cairo offices were closed in preparation for the raid, which reportedly involved more than 50 members of Egypt’s security forces. Six staffers were arrested and taken to an undisclosed location, where they report having been beaten in custody. One, Mohamed Adel, remains in custody. Mr. Adel is a leading activist within the April 6 movement, a key force behind Egypt's January 2011 uprising.
Adel is on trial with two other activists for violating a new protest law that restricts demonstrations. He had been on the run and was being tried in absentia.
While official pronouncements have focused on Adel’s arrest as a justification for the raid, rights groups say this masks a more aggressive message to the country's NGOs.
“The arrest of Mohamed Adel is not surprising. The surprising part is that they chose to arrest him where they did, despite the fact that he's publicly been moving about for weeks,” says Heba Morayef, Human Rights Watch’s Egypt Director. “They also did not need to turn up with a force of around 50 armed police officers and shut off the road running up to where the NGO was.”
Although today's raid was the first of its kind under Egypt’s new military-backed authorities, it is by no means a new phenomenon in a country where governments have long been wary of civil society activities.
NGOs faced arbitrary restrictions and harassment under the regime of dictator Hosni Mubarak's regime. All civil society groups are now required to officially register as non-governmental organizations, opening their activities and funding sources to close scrutiny from the state. Many groups that work to document state abuses of power, monitoring torture or offering welfare services to migrants, have sought to avoid the state’s watchful eye by operating without a license.
“It is absolutely clear to me that this operation was intended as a message to the organization itself, either targeted at its founder Khaled Ali, or just as a decision to go after one of the bigger organizations that is active on labor rights and defends activists in court,” Ms. Morayef says.
In May, a Cairo court ruled that 43 NGO staffers, including 16 Americans, be sentenced to up to five years in prison for using foreign funding to foment unrest.
Under a proposed new law, first debated before the coup, all civil society groups will require state permission before they can receive funding from domestic or international donors. Anyone who violates this measure will face a hefty fine.
Amnesty International has condemned the Egyptian authorities' latest squeeze on civil society, urging an independent investigation into allegations that the NGO staffers were mistreated in custody.
"Amnesty International urges the authorities to ensure that NGOs in Egypt can carry out their work in the country without hindrance, upholding the right to freedom of association enshrined in the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a state party," Amnesty International said in a statement Thursday.