(Beirut) – The Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), long one of Egypt’s leading independent human rights organizations, announced on January 10, 2022, that it was ending operations after nearly 18 years, Human Rights Watch said today. The group cited a series of threats, violent attacks, and arrests by the National Security Agency as well as the looming deadline requiring all nongovernmental organizations to register under the associations law.
The 2019 law places severe restrictions on the work of civil society groups and mandates pervasive government surveillance, including a requirement that all nongovernmental groups register with the Ministry of Social Solidarity. The organization said it is unable and unwilling to meet these requirements.
“ANHRI’s closure is an immeasurable loss to the Egyptian human rights movement and its international partners,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “ANHRI’s difficult decision to close its doors after nearly two decades unfortunately demonstrates that the Egyptian government’s goal is to silence critical independent civil society.”
The registration deadline of January 2022, stated in the implementing regulations issued in 2021, prompted the group’s decision. The law prohibits any “civic work” without prior registration with the Social Solidarity Ministry. The registration process is complicated and burdensome, requiring hundreds of pages of documentation of past activities, funding sources, and planned activities. The law allows government agencies to forcibly close down and freeze the assets of any unregistered organization that carries out work, and the administrative court can order its dissolution. Registration is not final until the Social Solidarity Ministry publicly approves the group’s registration.
A recent government proposal may extend the January registration deadline by six months. Gamal Eid, founder and director of ANHRI, told Human Rights Watch that any postponement “does not change the situation because there is no sign that the violations and threats against us will end.”
The group told Human Rights Watch that it received a message in October 2021 from a Social Solidarity Ministry official saying that the group could not register under its own name and would have to choose a new name. The official also insisted that freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and prison conditions did not fall within the activities the ministry and security authorities were willing to approve.
The official said the group should instead work on “normal issues.” Gamal Eid said in a statement that “after this honorable history that we are proud of, we refuse to become an organization that works on unimportant issues, and we will not become a complicit organization or a GNGO (Governmental-Non-Governmental-Organization).”
The National Security Agency’s ruthless campaign of intimidation and harassment contributed to the group’s decision. Over the past four years, National Security Agency officers have summoned several members of the group for questioning, attempting to recruit them as informants, the group said. The security agency also warned three of the group’s lawyers not to work with the organization or publish information about political prisoners.
Security forces arrested Amr Imam, one of the group’s lawyers, on October 16, 2019, and held him incommunicado for two days. He remains in pretrial detention, on spurious charges of joining a terrorist organization, exceeding the two-year limit in Egyptian law for pretrial detention. Another member of the group’s team was arrested in May 2020 on baseless “false news” charges and was only released in August 2021. The group said that three other employees left out of fear of the National Security Agency.
Gamal Eid was physically assaulted twice in 2019. The circumstances indicated security forces involvement. On October 10, 2019, two armed men in civilian clothes attacked Eid, resulting in several cracked ribs and injuries to his arms and legs. Twenty days later he received threatening phone calls and text messages from various numbers, with one caller telling him, “Behave yourself, Mr. Gamal.” On December 29, 2019, 10 or 12 men who appeared to be security officers, beat Eid to the ground, threatened him with pistols, and poured paint over his head and clothes.
Eid and Rawda Ahmed, another founder of the group, are among the human rights defenders charged in a decade-long “foreign funding” case, which further hinders the group’s ability to register, the group told Human Rights Watch. Eid has been under a travel ban and asset freeze since 2016, and is unable to open bank accounts or deal officially with third parties until the case is closed. The authorities summoned Eid on July 27, 2021, in relation to the case and interrogated him for three hours. In its statement about the interrogation, the group said that the security agency’s prosecution file claims that Eid and the group had played a role in the 2011 uprising.
Eid and Ahmed founded the group in 2004 to promote freedom of expression and provide legal assistance to activists and journalists. Since 2019 the group has extensively documented the dire conditions in Egyptian prisons. Diaa Rashwan, chair of Egypt’s State Information Service, directly referenced their reporting in an interview about the newly established Wadi al-Natrun prison complex.
The group and Eid have received international awards for their work on freedom of expression and press freedom in Egypt. In 2011, Eid was awarded the Leaders for Democracy Award by the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington-based nongovernmental group.
“The closure of ANHRI is a serious blow to the future of independent civil society in Egypt, and another sign of the dire human rights situation in the country” Stork said. “The international community cannot afford to let the state’s decimation of Egypt’s once vibrant civil society continue at such little cost and needs to pressure the government to repeal the associations law.”