Egyptian Human Rights Take a Hit with Tough New Law ; Activists Are Watching the Implementation of 2002 Law on Nongovernmental Groups

Article excerpt

At civil rights advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim's Ibn Khaldoun Center in Cairo, it's hard to get a straight answer. Outside the ransacked building sit three men, one in a white police uniform and two in plain clothes.

When asked where they come from, one says from the local police department; another says from state intelligence. When asked if they are protecting the recently looted building, one says yes; another with a smile says no. But when questioned whether Mr. Ibrahim can enter his own building, they all agree - no.

"A detachment from State Security [Egypt's intelligence services] came to the building, ordered my guard out after roughing him up, and occupied the building," says Ibrahim, a high-profile activist who was acquitted in March of charges that included defaming Egypt. It was a case that led to worldwide criticism against the government.

The crackdown against civil activists like Ibrahim is a window into the murky world of Egyptian civil liberties. Egypt is a strong US ally in the Middle East and a bulwark against Islamic extremism. But it also has a reputation for interference with and harassment of human rights activists, journalists, and other advocates of a free society - something that strikes hard at those who saw the Iraq war as a possible opening for democratic reforms in a region where authoritarianism is the rule.

Since the war with Iraq ended, there was hope throughout the region that greater democracy was on its way, including more freedoms for civil societies in the Middle East.

In Egypt, there were signs the government might fulfill these hopes when it announced several democratic proposals that the parliament just passed this Monday, including eliminating hard labor from the penal code, abolishing state security courts, and establishing a National Council for Human Rights to support and develop human rights in Egypt.

But Ibrahim's has been a cautionary tale. On the same day his office was occupied, the government also refused the registration of two nongovernmental human rights organizations, threatening them with eventual closure. And earlier this week respected human rights activist Mohamed Zarea was detained and interrogated at the Cairo airport after attending a human rights conference in Beirut.

Human rights activists in Egypt, the region, and the West have condemned these activities.

"It's a signal that the system is entrenched and that there will be no change," says Mohamed El Sayed Said, academic adviser to the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. "The government is back to its normal practice of repression and denial of assembly. It's showing its teeth by such brutal intervention."

While many activists and intellectuals welcomed these changes, most say the real test will be the implementation of a new, 2002 law governing Egypt's nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Egypt's approximately 16,000 NGOs - which provide social programs from medical care and basic hygiene to literacy and job creation - had six months to register with the Ministry of Social Affairs before a June 4 deadline.

Human rights activists and others strongly criticized the new NGO law, saying it gives the government sweeping new powers to refuse registration or eventually shut down a group; to monitor and approve of an NGO's key activities, including foreign fundraising; and even to approve the selection of its board of directors. …