On Wednesday, December 7, prominent women’s rights advocate and lawyer Azza Soliman was arrested in her Cairo home by Egyptian security forces. Soliman is the founder of the Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA), an organization that raises awareness of legal and human rights issues, particularly as they pertain to women.
Soliman has been on the security forces’ radar since standing trial for “illegal protesting,” after she witnessed the 2015 murder of socialist activist and protester Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh by police (she was later acquitted along with seventeen others).
On November 19, 2016, Soliman was barred from leaving the country; she later discovered that her assets and those of her NGO had been frozen. An investigating judge put out a warrant for her arrest this week, on accusations of “establishing an illegal entity and receiving foreign funding to harm Egypt,” according to Reuters.
After being detained, the feminist activist was released on $1,000 bail.
Sadly, Soliman is just the latest in a string of Egyptian activists, lawyers, and journalists to be banned from travel, have their assets frozen, or to be detained in recent years. According to human rights workers, this is part of a widespread crackdown and investigation, which began after the 2011 uprising, into civil society organizations and individuals accused of receiving foreign funding to foment instability and unrest in the country.
In late November, shortly after Ms. Soliman was turned back at Cairo airport, travel bans were imposed on three more prominent activists. As journalist Heba Saleh writes in the Financial Times:
Aida Seif al-Dawla, a psychiatrist and founder of the al-Nadeem Centre which rehabilitates victims of torture, was on Wednesday prevented from leaving the country as she prepared to fly to Tunisia from Cairo airport. Two human rights lawyers suffered the same fate this week.
Egyptian human rights activists say the bans are part of the authorities’ attempts to silence criticism from civil society groups. Activists have been under intense pressure since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power after a popularly backed 2013 coup that ousted his Islamist predecessor. State and private media have been tarring human rights movements as saboteurs in the pay of foreign powers seeking to undermine Egypt’s stability.
“Almost all my colleagues [in human rights] had this happen to them, so there was some expectation,” said Ms Seif al-Dawla, who had not previously been informed of any judicial steps against her or al-Nadeem. “There is a crackdown so we thought that sooner or later it would be our turn.
Saleh goes on to explain the extent of the crackdown, which implicates up to thirty-seven civil society organizations:
Judicial authorities had already issued travel bans to at least 15 rights activists in connection with investigations related to what is known as “Case Number 173,” which targets civil society organisations on charges related to securing unauthorised funding from abroad.
In September, a court froze the assets of five human rights activists and three organisations in connection with the same case. Up to 37 organisations are alleged to have received money illegally from foreign donors to carry out activities that harm national security.
In 2011, security forces raided the offices of seventeen pro-democracy and rights organizations, arresting staff members. In 2013, a court ordered the permanent closure of many of these foreign groups and handed out jail sentences to forty-three NGO staff, including fifteen Americans who fled the country. In August of this year, Ann Lesch, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the American University in Cairo, compiled a partial list of the organizations currently under investigation and provided in-depth analysis of the dangers facing the human rights community in Egypt.
This year alone Amnesty International has released several statements expressing concern over the severe government clampdown on civil society organizations, including one on Wednesday following Soliman’s arrest.
“Azza Soliman’s arrest is the latest chilling example of the Egyptian authorities’ systematic persecution of independent human rights defenders. We believe she has been arrested for her legitimate human rights work and must be released immediately and unconditionally. The intimidation and harassment of human rights activists has to stop,” said Najia Bounaim, Deputy Director for Campaigns at Amnesty International’s Tunis Regional office.
The Egyptian government appears to have no intention of de-escalating its witch hunt, however. Alongside all the other measures the regime has taken, “President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is also posed to sign a draconian new law on associations which would give the government and security apparatus extraordinary power over NGOs,” Amnesty writes.
In describing this situation, Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program, put it best: “Egypt’s civil society is being treated like an enemy of the state, rather than a partner for reform and progress.”