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Egypt: Crackdown on civil society and feminist organizations

Monday 25 December 2017, by siawi3

Source:, 25.12.17

Egypt: Crackdown on civil society and feminist organizations

Interview * with a member of Nazra For Feminist Studies, Cairo

by Andy Heintz**


In what ways has the current Egyptian government been cracking down on civil society organizations?

The Egyptian government has various tools to crackdown on civil society. The most prominent tool has been case 173, which started in 2011, and targeted various international and national non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Activists in international organizations received sentences ranging from one to five years in 2013.
As for the local NGOs, the case remained looming around as a tool of pressure on NGOs, and accusations against local NGOs would most probably be related to receiving foreign funding with the intention of harming national security and State interests, which is punishable by life imprisonment according to article 78 in the Egyptian Penal Code (amended in 2014).

The case was reopened and several workers in local NGOs were summoned for investigation since March 2016. Within the context of the case several human rights defenders and women’s human rights defenders were banned from traveling, including the founder and executive director of Nazra, Mozn Hassan. Several Human Rights Defenders and Women’s Human Rights Defenders have also had their assets frozen. There was also an administrative order to close the Al Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture. Al Nadeem is one of the oldest and most prominent human rights organizations in Egypt, which specifically works on combating torture. Also, among the tactics used to crackdown on civil society organizations are smear campaigns led by State-owned media. In addition to that, recently a new NGO law was approved by the parliament which puts unprecedented constraints on the work of civil society in Egypt.

Why does Nazra think it’s so important that feminism be seen as both a personal and political issue for Egyptians?

We have always seen feminism as not only a personal but also a political issue, and we are very keen on promoting this argument. It is very often the case that not only state actors, or conservative societal actors, but also progressive actors within the human rights or the democratic movement, see feminism as an issue that is not related to politics. However, we think that feminism, because it upsets patriarchy and hegemonic structures, upsets power. It is very important for us to see it this way so that feminists and the feminist movement can be considered as part of the human rights and the democratic movement and not as an isolated movement. Also, it is important to see that ‘’private sphere’’ issues like marriage, divorce and so on are political and need to be considered by political actors. These issues are part of our political struggle for a more just society and more just social and power relations.

How important is it for Nazra to engage Egyptian youth in discussions about power relations between genders in Egypt? Is this part of a strategy to counter the patriarchal narratives being promoted to Egyptian youth by Islamists?

It is very important for us to engage youth. We actually have a program solely dedicated to supporting young feminist initiatives in governorates outside Cairo. It is not necessarily a way to counter the Muslim Brotherhood narratives, it is a way to mainstream and decentralize feminism and the feminist movement.

Do you think many progressives in the West misunderstood the implications of the election of the Muslim Brotherhood before President Morsi was overthrown?

Yes, I think many progressives in the West misunderstood the threats of Morsi’s presence (or more accurately the Muslim Brotherhood), and also misunderstood what happened on the 30th of June. It is true that Morsi was democratically elected, but democracy is not only about the ballot box — it is also about policies, transparency, respect of rights and freedoms, and protection of minorities and vulnerable groups. Morsi was undermining many democratic principles in this sense. There were real dangers and threats to Christians and religious minorities in Egypt, and Morsi’s supporters were unapologetically using sectarian discourse with his blessing. Various violent sectarian incidents took place and were not condemned by the president. The attacks on Egyptian Shia and the killing of a prominent Shia leader Hassan Shehata were a case in point. Similarly, laws that were being pushed for in the Muslim Brotherhood-majority Parliament before Morsi was elected president were very worrying.

Did former President Mubarak’s dictatorial rule weaken secular progressive parties in Egypt?

Yes, of course. Parties were not truly allowed to operate unless they somehow showed allegiance to the State. There were underground parties or organizations, and this affected the ability of these parties to mobilize and grow, especially with State targeting.

What can progressives in the West do to show solidarity with feminist and secular progressive groups like Nazra?

You can remain in touch and follow what’s happening, publish and issue solidarity statements, pressure your governments to push for a better record of human rights and respect of civil society in our countries.

Was the Muslim Brotherhood an even greater threat to women’s rights than the Egyptian military and Mubarak’s regime?

In a sense, yes, because with the Muslim Brotherhood in power there was a real risk of reversing the gains that the feminist movement has achieved over the years. For instance, there was a suggestion in the parliament to legalize female genital mutilation. This does not mean that today’s government or Mubarak’s were progressive or feminist. Yet, Islamism carries more imminent and immediate threats to women’s rights.

Do you feel like a secular state is necessary to guarantee basic civil rights for women in Egypt?

To our minds, yes, secularism is necessary for a fully democratic State that respects its citizens.

Do you think Western human rights organizations need to place a greater emphasis on women’s rights as well as crimes of non-state actors in their reports on human rights abuses in the Middle East?

Yes, definitely. Crimes of non-state actors against women represent a huge amount of violence against women at home and in the streets, and these crimes should definitely be recognized.


*Interview with a member of Nazra for Feminist Studies.
Nazra is a group that aims at contributing to the continuity and development of the Egyptian and regional feminist movement in the Middle East and North Africa, where the group believes that feminism and gender are political and social issues affecting freedom and development in all societies. Nazra strives to mainstream these values in both public and private spheres.

**This interview is excerpted from “Dissidents of the International Left” , by Andy Heintz, to be published in 2018.

Andy Heintz has been conducting interviews for more than two years with progressives from around 15 countries.

published by Siawi with author’s permission