Since its founding in 2002, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) has served as one of the country’s leading knowledge producers, legal aid providers, and human rights organizations. Through its documentation, research, and legal and advocacy work, it has supported and influenced the work of other domestic and international organizations, informed policymakers around the world, and lent its expertise to the Egyptian government on key issues, including health. A recent and unprecedented escalation against the organization threatens to have reverberating implications not only for EIPR, but civil society and the right to freedom of association at large.
On November 15, Egyptian authorities raided the home of EIPR’s Administrative Manager Mohamed Basheer and arrested him. He was then held at a State Security sector facility for 12 hours, where he was questioned about a November 3 visit by over a dozen foreign diplomats who had met with EIPR to discuss the state of human rights and civil society in the country. Thereafter, Basheer was transferred to the Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP) where he was questioned about the work of EIPR and accused of a series of charges including joining a terrorist organization; he was ordered into pretrial detention for 15 days per Case No. 855/2020. Over the last few months, Egyptian authorities have been adding a number of prominent human rights defenders and journalists into this same case.
The crackdown on EIPR has not ended there. On November 18, Karim Ennarah, who heads EIPR’s Criminal Justice Unit, was arrested at a restaurant while on vacation in Dahab, South Sinai a day after his home in Cairo was raided. Nearly 24 hours after his arrest, on November 19, he too was brought before the SSSP and entered into pretrial detention for 15 days in the same case. Only hours after this news became public, authorities raided the home of Executive Director Gasser Abdel-Razek and took him to an unknown location. He also later surfaced before the SSSP, was questioned at 2:30 am on November 20, and was ordered into pretrial detention for 15 days in the same case as his colleagues.
It is not the first time that Egyptian authorities have targeted EIPR and its staff; founder and Mada Masr journalist Hossam Bahgat was arrested briefly in November 2015 before widespread international condemnation helped secure his release; he was banned from travel in February 2016 and his assets were later frozen in September 2016 in continuation of a high-profile case targeting civil society in the country. In February of this year, academic and EIPR researcher Patrick Zaki was arrested in a separate case when returning home to visit his family; he remains in pretrial detention today.
Authorities have increasingly detained and prosecuted human rights defenders and members of civil society, as well as shuttered independent organizations, in an attempt to quell organizing power and stifle dissent. While this escalation on EIPR occurs amid this larger context, it is also significant and unprecedented for multiple reasons. For staff members of one of the country’s leading civil society organizations to be questioned on terrorism charges suggests that Egyptian authorities are implying that EIPR, an organization that has informed the work of hundreds of policymakers—including allies of the Egyptian state—and the Egyptian parliament itself, is a terrorist entity. Furthermore, authorities’ intense interest in the November 3 meeting with diplomats while questioning Basheer sends an alarming message that advocacy with foreign diplomats, an entirely legal activity that was made public by both EIPR and the diplomatic missions in question, may be criminal activity. Responding to the arrests, the Ambassador of Ireland to Egypt stated: “Meeting with a wide range of interlocutors, including members of civil society, is an integral part of normal diplomatic practice in every country. It is an indispensable part of building the bilateral relationship between countries, that allows for friendly exchange, enriched understanding and solid partnerships.”
In response to a public statement of concern issued by the government of France following the first arrest, Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected France’s “interference into its domestic affairs” and claimed that EIPR was operating in violation of the 2019 NGO Law. This response by the ministry does nothing to explain why EIPR’s staff members are being prosecuted on criminal and terrorism-related charges, nor does it explain the timing of this escalation, particularly when authorities had clearly been aware of EIPR’s presence and engaged with the initiative themselves. It is also important to note that Egyptian authorities have failed to issue implementing regulations for the 2019 NGO Law, in violation of provisions which required for them to have been released by February of this year, making it difficult, if not impossible, for NGOs to regulate their adherence with the law. The foreign ministry’s statement is mere pretense for a crackdown that has everything to do with the substance and impact of EIPR’s work on rights issues, including detention conditions during COVID-19 and sectarian attacks against minorities, and its engagement with the diplomatic corps.
As other international stakeholders continue to add their voices to France’s, among them already the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor within the United States Department of State, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, it is likely that authorities will continue to express similar rejections. It will be up to foreign diplomats, policymakers, and peers of EIPR to push back both privately and publicly to send a clear message that the attack on EIPR is not a “domestic affair,” but rather, a global one that affects us all.