In August, authorities for the first time barred two senior executives from Human Rights Watch from entering the country to unveil a year-long investigation of mass killings of demonstrators at the hands of security forces. Since then, the rising intimidation, bolstered by whispers of impending arrests, has forced several of Egypt's leading rights advocates to leave the country.
One prominent human rights defender who recently left for the United States explained his decision: "On the one hand, there was the overt and covert threats, and on the other hand, there was the suffocating environment of this shrinking space for any kind of dissent." Once a frequent guest on television discussing rights issues and revolutionary aspirations, he is now in exile and does not know when he can return.
"Not knowing whether you can leave, whether you can go back, whether you can be in Egypt is I think the worst part, and I don't think it's a coincidence or side effect. I think it's part of the plan. It has a chilling effect, and it leads to everyone living under a constant threat to one's safety and freedom," he says.
A case in point is Yara Sallam. A 28-year-old lawyer working with EIPR, she was among two dozen people arrested in June after security forces dispersed a demonstration in eastern Cairo against the controversial protest law. In custody, Sallam was questioned about the nature of her work and about EIPR's management. She was subsequently charged with violating the protest law while her cousin, who was arrested beside her in exactly the same circumstances, was released hours later without charge. EIPR's Abdel Razek has no doubt that the authorities decided to hold Sallam because of her human rights work. Last month, she and twenty-two co-defendants were sentenced to three years in prison.
The current generation of advocacy organizations in Egypt was established in the mid-1980s and grew throughout the next two decades into arguably the most mature human rights community in the region, with high degrees of specialization and expertise.
Many within the rights community now say they will have to adapt to the more restrictive and authoritarian environment in order to continue their work. "I have no doubt that activism to document and expose violations and challenge them legally will continue," says the human rights advocate forced to leave Egypt. "It's just going to take a new form that is more similar to Syria under Hafez al-Assad or Tunisia under Ben Ali than to Mubarak's Egypt."
The increasingly hostile climate for NGOs has taken a toll. Earlier this month, seven local rights groups decided not to take part in a United Nations review of Egypt's human rights record in Geneva, saying they feared persecution by authorities upon their return.
At the review session — held before the UN Human Rights Council every four years and mandatory for all member states — Egypt's rights record came under harsh criticism from a number of countries, with several delegations singling out the restrictive NGO legislation. The Egyptian delegation lashed out at the criticism. "Egypt urges that the remarks be based on correct and accurate information, because some of them appear to be dealing with conditions in a country other than Egypt," deputy foreign minister Hesham Badr said. "Maybe some here have the wrong address."
The government has justified the raft of new decrees and regulations, including the NGO measures, as necessary to combat a growing Islamist insurgency that has carried out scores of deadly attacks on army and security forces in the Sinai Peninsula as well as the capital and Nile Delta.
"We are a country under attack," Wali says. "Look at what the US did after September 11. We are under attacks that are no smaller than September 11, and I think this state and this government and this country has a duty toward its people to try and protect them."
At least six international and around ten local organizations filed paperwork ahead of the deadline to register under the 2002 law, according to the ministry.
Mohamed Lotfy, head of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, an organization founded last year, reluctantly decided to register his group in order to provide some legal protection for members and volunteers.
"You register and you survive, but under very difficult conditions of work — or you don't register and you are in a confrontation with the state," Lotfy says. "The problem is, that law gives enough space for the state to be arbitrary, meaning that it can dissolve you if it deems your work is threatening national security or national unity or social peace," he added. "You work with the sword of Damocles hanging over your head."