Egypt: amending the penal code, shattering civil society

Egypt
Law
Politics
Society
2014-10-15-egypt-590.jpg

Yet another crackdown: from security forces to new laws, Egypt is curbing its citizens's civil rights. Violet Paradise under a Creative Commons Licence

While purportedly made in order to target terrorists, critics contend that the amendment is a continuation of the state’s attempts to undermine voices from civil society and diminish criticism of the regime. According to Ahmed Ezzat, a human rights lawyer, the law would affect ‘activists, journalists, filmmakers – even a student who has received a fellowship from abroad’.

On 21 September, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi issued an amendment to Article 78 of the penal code extending the penalty for receiving any funding that would be used to commit acts against the ‘state’s interest’. The amendment stipulates that anyone requesting or receiving foreign funds from a foreign or local private organization, with the aim of carrying out activities ‘harmful to national interests’ or that would ‘destabilize public peace’, ‘would result in life imprisonment and a fine of at least 500,000 Egyptian pounds ($70,000).

Previously, Article 78 criminalized funds received solely from ‘foreign states and their affiliates’, while now, the Article has been broadened to also include funds from private organizations, both international and domestic. Moreover, the former version described the penalty as ‘strict imprisonment’, but never prescribed a life sentence, while the fine was set at a minimum of 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($140).

While purportedly made in order to target terrorists, critics contend that the amendment is a continuation of the state’s attempts to undermine voices from civil society and diminish criticism of the regime. According to Ahmed Ezzat, a human rights lawyer, the law would affect ‘activists, journalists, filmmakers – even a student who has received a fellowship from abroad’.

Extending suppression

The amendment comes at a time of continual constrictions placed on NGOs. In June, the government announced a draft law that would essentially vest the state with veto power over the finances and activities of NGOs. The proposed law is heavily restrictive, stating that civil associations would be banned from engaging in ‘political activities’ – the scope of which was left unspecified. It also sets out harsh penalties with a minimum fine of at least 100,000 Egyptian pounds ($14,000) and a minimum of one year imprisonment.

‘The legal phrasing is quite poor and is an insult to the concept of law. They have applied very harsh penalties for acts that remain undefined. It’s been made intentionally vague in order to be applied to anyone’

One of the main criticisms of the draft law was its stiff regulations on funding. An NGO would need approval from the state in order to accept foreign grants, or confront possible dissolution. Additionally, any form of financing would be considered as public assets, and any inconsistencies, however minor, would be considered a felony under the penal code and would result in imprisonment from 3 to 15 years.

The cryptic penal code

The constitutionality of the amendment is being questioned, given its use of ‘harming national interest’ or ‘destabilizing general peace’ – terms that are not defined in the constitution, and would be left to the interpretation of the judicial and executive authorities.

The list of what could be considered as criminal procurements are equally obscure and include ‘cash, transferred money, supplies, equipment, arms or ammunition, or the equivalent, or other things’. The employment of a range of vague terminologies in the Article, allowing a broad application, means that those at risk of being charged would largely be left to the discretion of state authorities.

The amendment could cause NGOs to limit their criticism of the state in their reports, in order to avoid falling under the government’s radar

‘The legal phrasing is quite poor and is an insult to the concept of law. They have applied very harsh penalties for acts that remain undefined,’ Zaree explains. ‘It’s been made intentionally vague in order to be applied to anyone.’

Articles 86 through to 99 of the penal code already address terrorism. According to Zaree, the ostensible aim of the amendment to Article 78 to trounce terrorism seems unnecessary: ‘Targeting terrorism needs more capacity-building for security forces; instead, they [the regime] are targeting the public space.’

This is by no means the first time that equivocal expressions have been applied to Egyptian law. ‘We have experience with this ambiguous language being used throughout the penal code such as “public order”, “public morals”, “national unity”,’ says Ezzat. Nor should the amendment be taken merely as a threat to intimidate civil society that would be inconsequential. It is worth remembering the police raids of 17 NGOs across Cairo in December 2011, which resulted in the conviction of 23 NGO workers in 2013.

The 43 employees were charged, under Article 98 of the penal code, with operating without a licence and ‘receiving foreign funding without authorization’ – an indictment that also challenges international standards. According to a report from Human Rights Watch, under international law, ‘membership of an unrecognized association cannot in and of itself amount to a crime. The one limitation is if the association openly calls for violence.’

Closing off the public sphere

Both Ezzat and Zaree fear that the amendment will breed self-censorship in civil society. On 5 November, Egypt will be reviewed at the UPR by the UN’s Human Rights Council. Zaree is worried that the amendment could cause NGOs to limit their criticism of the state in their reports, in order to avoid falling under the government’s radar: ‘If you raise certain recommendations, it could mean the end of your organization.’

Combined with the protest law, the detention of activists and journalists, the criminalization of the Muslim Brotherhood, the draft law to oversee NGOs, and the crackdown on student protesters, the amendment is but one brick in the larger foundation of repression being established in the country. ‘Everything is connected; the suppression on media, NGOs, protests,’ believes Ezzat.

According to Zaree, the state is effectively closing down the space for dissent that had opened following January 2011. ‘The political will of the current regime is to stifle democracy. The broadest definition of “civil society” is being muzzled,’ agrees Ezzat. Protests have all but dried up; over 40,000 people were arrested on political grounds during the year following the ousting of President Morsi, and the national media is increasingly converging to one narrative – endorsing the regime. Meanwhile, journalists who challenge the status quo are cast as antagonists to stability, disrupting ‘national unity’. ‘The state’s main target is the public sphere – the regime is showing zero tolerance for criticism,’ says Zaree.

The expanding exertion of control over civil society demonstrates the regime’s scorn for criticism. The amendment is a reaffirmation of the state’s use of intimidation and harsh restrictions to curtail liberties in the country. ‘We don’t trust the amendment will be used in a rational way. These sorts of amendments won’t necessarily combat terrorism, but will definitely combat freedoms,’ concludes Zaree.

Chalaine Chang is a Canadian freelance journalist based in Cairo.

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