Egyptian riot police are seen during clashes in Cairo in this June 11, 2013, file photo (AP).

Human rights groups are routinely tarred in today’s Egyptian media – including social media – as either “traitors supporting terrorism” or “mercenaries selling their services to the highest bidder.” They are being denounced for treachery despite their utter dedication and consistency in standing by the principles of human rights and democracy through all the regime changes of the past three years. The general phenomenon is sadly familiar, but the current assault is especially severe, taking new forms and gaining wider public support.

Civil society has been battered in turn by the Mubarak regime, the transitional regime of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the administration of president Mohamed Morsi, and finally the military-backed government that took power after ousting Morsi in the July 2013 coup, which was backed by a popular uprising. Although the faces at the top have changed, the critical issues raised by human rights and democracy organizations have threatened the same elements in the state apparatus – principally the security nexus formed by the military, the police, and intelligence agencies.

Unlike previous crackdowns, however, the current attack on civil society is drawing strong backing from the Egyptian public, large segments of which either support or do not oppose the efforts of military leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose stated aim is to preserve national security and unity against an imminent threat. In this context, the promotion of political freedom and human rights is deemed a secondary priority at best.

insight freedom house INSIGHT: Rights Groups in Egypt Face Withering AssaultUnder Mubarak, the term “civil society” was hardly known among the general public. If recognized at all, it was understood in the narrow sense of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) doing charity work. The Mubarak regime utilized several effective tools to control civil society. Law 84, which regulated the work of NGOs, was extremely restrictive and empowered the government to meddle in and effectively cripple their activities. In addition, a culture of impunity allowed the government to intimidate civil society actors to various degrees, from low-key threats by security agencies to unwarranted closures of their offices. The news media were also used for the character assassination of individual activists who challenged the regime, but the media attacks were not directed at the civil society sector as a whole, as is the case today. In the eyes of the government at that time, NGOs were ineffective in the political game, and the main purpose of the interventions was to assert control over the groups’ funding.

After the fall of Mubarak in 2011, the perception of civil society’s role and effectiveness changed. The term “civil society” became almost synonymous with human rights and democracy groups. For the majority of the public who were supportive of the revolution, the role of NGOs was mostly respected and seen as crucial in the uprising of January 25.

“Any criticism by democracy and human rights groups is now met with the accusation that they are undermining stability and dragging Egypt into a Syrian scenario.” – Nancy Okail, Freedom House

The SCAF, which took over after the fall of Mubarak, was not comfortable with the increasing popularity of these groups and the role they played. Finding itself on the front line of politics, the military was exposed to public scrutiny, with rights groups criticizing the use of military tribunals to try civilians and calling for more transparency and accountability regarding the military budget.

A smear campaign was launched in the media against civil society as a whole and particularly against foreign-funded NGOs, casting doubt on their intentions and accusing them of being agents of foreign governments that threaten national security. The campaign formed the pretext for prolonged legal harassment of foreign-funded civic groups that ultimately led to prison sentences for 43 NGO workers on June 4, 2013.

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Anti-Morsi protesters hold up a poster featuring the head of Egypt's armed forces, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in Cairo's Tahrir Square July 3, 2013. (Reuters)

Surprisingly, this did not deter local NGOs and rights groups from continuing their struggle under SCAF or later under Morsi. Morsi’s rule was a great disappointment for rights advocates, featuring a continuation of police abuses, crackdowns on civil liberties, and prosecution of dissenting voices. The Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, pushed hard toward the passage of an NGO law that would be even more restrictive than Mubarak’s Law 84. However, at that time, the conflict was mainly between Morsi’s government and civil society, and the Egyptian public did not hold strong views against civil society organizations. Indeed, Egyptians were mostly supportive of their stands against abuses by Morsi and the Brotherhood, whose popularity was in rapid decline.

The confrontation took a different turn after the June 30, 2013, mass uprising that paved the way for the military to oust president Morsi on July 3. With the bulk of popular support apparently behind the military and al-Sisi in their assault on the Muslim Brotherhood, all the ensuing human rights violations by the security forces were framed as means to tackle a dire national threat, and the overall repression was soon characterized as a war against terrorism.

A majority of the population, eager to rid themselves of the Muslim Brotherhood’s authoritarianism, proved ready to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses and accept what they had previously condemned and risen against. The closure of opposition (that is, Islamist) television channels, thousands of arbitrary arrests of Brotherhood members, and massacres of pro-Morsi protesters that left over a thousand people dead have all been justified in the name of national unity and an ultra-patriotic discourse propagated by the remaining mass media, which stridently support the military.

Any criticism by democracy and human rights groups is now met with the accusation that they are undermining stability and dragging Egypt into a Syrian scenario. This rhetoric exposes rights groups to immediate assault, not only by the authorities but also by the inflamed public, who see the activists as traitors, foreign agents, or naïve troublemakers. Meanwhile, the same rights groups are heavily criticized by Brotherhood supporters when they condemn Islamists’ hate speech and increasing violence against the Coptic community.

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Egyptian civil society activists accused of working for unlicensed NGOs and receiving funds from questionable sources are seen caged under guard at their trial in Cairo in this February 26, 2012, file photo. (Reuters)

Civil society is put in this perennially vulnerable situation, subject to severe attacks regardless of the changing regimes, because of the lack of rule of law and the weak position of their own institutions. The lawless conditions in which NGOs must operate opens the door for corrupt elements to abuse the system and taint the reputations of their honest counterparts in the sector, which further enables the official assaults.

There is well-founded pessimism about the situation in Egypt, particularly with regard to human rights and political freedoms. But the ongoing volatility of the country indicates that no “status quo” is likely to remain intact, meaning there is an opportunity for positive change. The international community has a major role to play in fostering a return to the democratic path, not through sanctions or disengagement but through stronger support for civil society and the persistent democratic voices in the country.

Given recent developments in the region, especially surrounding the crisis in Syria, many policymakers may be inclined to abandon democracy promotion efforts and emphasize the restoration of security and stability, as the current Egyptian leaders advocate. Such a shift would be disastrous for civil society activists, leaving them alone in their struggle against the latest wave of authoritarian repression. Just as importantly, it would be self-defeating, encouraging the perpetuation of the same lawlessness, dysfunction, and brutality that set off the 2011 revolts in the first place. Only a genuine democratic transition can bring long-term stability, and this is impossible without a robust civil society.

This post was originally published under a similar headline on FreedomHouse.org.

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 INSIGHT: Rights Groups in Egypt Face Withering Assault

Nancy Okail

Nancy Okail is director of Freedom House Egypt. On Twitter, she can be followed at @NancyGEO.