Egyptian Human Rights Defender Mohamed Zaree Faces Court on Wednesday

Mohamed Zaree of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights.
Mohamed Zaree of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights.

The latest installment in Egypt’s long-running judicial harassment of civil society is due on Wednesday. Mohamed Zaree, Egypt Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) has been summoned to appear before an investigative judge that day in the notorious 173/2011 case, commonly known as the “NGO foreign funding case.”

The Cairo Institute is one of the world’s leading NGOs, with a long-established national and international reputation for expert, effective advocacy. It’s one of 37 NGOs now targeted in Egypt in the 173/2011 case. Nine months ago a court ordered the freezing of the NGO’s assets.

Zaree himself has been banned for leaving the country but the authorities for a year now, and Wednesday’s questioning will be another impediment to his work. “I’m worried that the investigation could lead to prison, but it’s also wasting our time when we should be working on more important things,” he told me. “Human rights violations are more serious and worse here than ever, and our work is really needed to convey the voice of the victims. By punishing us they are punishing the victims twice. In a country facing security and terrorist threats, respecting human rights isn’t optional, it isn’t a luxury. It’s vital to maintaining security and stability. The state should concentrate on combating terrorism, not combatting freedoms.”

The government of President Al Sisi has mounted a relentless attack on Egypt’s civil society, and Zaree is one of dozens of leading Egyptian activists who is banned from leaving the country. Others, including Mozn Hassan, Founder and Executive Director of Nazra for Feminist Studies, have also had their assets frozen. “Zaree is a strong passionate activist who inspires me with his strength in struggling for our rights as civil society continues our struggle,” said Hassan. She’s also been targeted in the foreign funding case.

Zaree’s work at the Cairo Institute in increasingly recognized outside the country, and he is one of he 2017 finalists for the prestigious Martin Ennals Human Rights Defender Award. He’s known as a consensus leader with Egyptian society too, and co-ordinates the decade-old Forum of Independent Egyptian Human Rights NGOs.

A persistent critic of repression in Egypt, Zaree is an obvious target for the regime, and Wednesday’s hearing is serious. In September 2014, President Al-Sisi signed into law amendments to Article 78 of the Penal Code which include the provision that receiving foreign funding for the purpose of “harming national security” is punishable by life imprisonment.

President Trump’s hosting of Al-Sisi at the White House last month offered little prospect of the new United State administration urging its military ally to reform and to respect human rights. “I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President al-Sisi,” said Trump. “He's done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.  And I just want to say to you, Mr. President, that you have a great friend and ally in the United States and in me.”

Trump’s election victory is widely reported on Egyptian state media as a renormalization of relations with Washington after the aberration of the Obama presidency, which sometimes criticized Al-Sisi’s human rights abuses. Al-Sisi’s remarks at the White House pointedly noted that  “this is my first state visit to the United States since my inauguration in office.  And, as a matter of fact, this is the first visit in eight years from an Egyptian president to the United States.”  

Trump’s reassurance that “we’re going to be friends for a long, long period of time” offers little prospect that the U.S. administration is going to encourage Egypt from the path of suffocating its civil society.