CAIRO: Egyptian President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi on Monday enacted a law imposing strict new regulations on aid groups, stoking fears that his government intends to accelerate its crackdown on human rights activists before a presidential election scheduled for next year.
The new law, which some aid groups predict will force them to shut down, was approved by Egypt’s Parliament in November last year, but Al Sissi hesitated to sign it after trenchant criticism from Western officials, most notably Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who threatened to restrict US aid to Egypt if the legislation was approved.
But recently, Al Sissi has appeared emboldened by a burgeoning friendship with President Donald Trump, who has hailed the Egyptian strongman as a “fantastic guy” and indicated that he did not intend to allow human rights issues to sour their relationship.
Having welcomed Al Sissi to Washington last month, Trump met with him again during his visit last week to Saudi Arabia, where the two leaders were photographed touching a glowing orb alongside King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia. On his return to Egypt, Al Sissi’s government pushed through new press restrictions and prosecuted a rival political leader in the courts, further squeezing political rights and free speech.
Al Sissi argues that harsh measures are needed to counter the threat from violent extremists like Daesh, which since December has killed more than 100 Christians in a campaign of sectarian violence. In the latest attack, on Friday, gunmen killed 30 people as they travelled to a monastery in southern Minya governorate.
Critics counter that Al Sissi’s counterterrorism strategy is in fact foundering badly, yet the president seems intent on scapegoating progressives and political rivals.
The law approved by Al Sissi on Monday places harsh restrictions on Egypt’s 47,000 local non-governmental organisations as well as about 100 foreign-financed ones. It makes their work subject to approval by a new regulatory body which, aid workers say, is likely to be little more than a vehicle for interference by the country’s security agencies.
Aid groups will need permission from the new body, which has not yet been established, to conduct field work or publish surveys and, more broadly, must ensure their work “fits the state’s plans, development needs and priorities”, according to the law.
“This is a complete disaster,” said Mohammad Zari, a prominent Egyptian human rights defender. “They have taken away everything. It’s over. It’s not just human rights organisations — they are also going after charities and any organised group they do not already control.”
Zari is facing trial on charges of endangering national security and has been banned from leaving Egypt.
Last week, Al Sissi’s government blocked 21 websites in Egypt, including Al Jazeera; the Arabic language version of The Huffington Post; and Mada Masr, an independent news organisation that has published several investigations into the workings of the security agencies. After an outcry on social media, Mada Masr appeared to be working again on Monday.
On May 23, police arrested Khalid Ali, a prominent human rights lawyer who led opposition to Al Sissi’s decision early last year to hand over possession of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. That agreement angered the Egyptian public, and it is one of the few issues where Al Sissi is considered politically vulnerable.
Some saw the arrest as part of an effort by Al Sissi to clear the field of rivals before next year’s presidential election. If Ali, one of those rivals, is convicted on charges of “violating public morals”, he faces a potential two-year prison sentence and will be disqualified from running for office.
In Washington, Al Sissi’s warm relationship with Trump has been offset by stiff criticism from McCain and Graham. In a joint statement in December, they slammed the new aid law as “draconian” and vowed to push for restrictions on US aid to Egypt, currently at about $1.3 billion a year, if it is enacted. Their offices could not be reached for comment on Monday.
— Nour Youssef contributed reporting