Why civic space matters?
By: Cop Civic Space Editorial
Civil society, indigenous peoples, environmental human rights defenders, trade unions and social movements across the world have worked for decades to address climate change. The pressure building towards meaningful action on climate justice, has been driven by the tireless commitment of these actors raising awareness of environmental challenges, advocating for the realization of the right to a healthy environment for all, including future generations, fighting for the needs of the most vulnerable populations to be factored into decision-making processes, and proposing solutions.
The resolution of the climate crisis lies in social, economic and institutional change requiring collective action by mobilised groups. Achieving climate justice therefore requires the full and meaningful participation of civil society, including the most marginalised groups. Civil and political rights such as the freedom of expression and the freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in addition to access to information and climate education are essential to this work, as they form the essential means through which groups of individuals including the most marginalised can gather together around shared goals of building a sustainable future. As Special Rapporteur Clément Voule puts it, “The ability of individuals to mobilize, organize and connect and to contribute to shaping public opinion and decision-making without fear […] is essential to the production of effective climate action and just transitions.”
Unfortunately, civic freedoms are being systematically violated globally in the context of climate justice. Those involved in the climate justice movement are being threatened, silenced and criminalized at alarming rates; peaceful assemblies are often met with excessive force and protesters are frequently detained, sentenced and/or face steep fines for the exercise of their rights. In addition, environmental protestors and organizations are victims of extensive surveillance by law enforcement and of smear campaigns and public vilification that seek to discredit and erode public support for defenders’ work through the spreading of disinformation.
How’s the civic space situation in Egypt? [Excerpts from joint NGO submission]
Shortly after the 2013 military coup, Egyptian authorities have systematically targeted peaceful critics and opponents from across the whole political spectrum leading to closure of civic space. In a nutshell, the Egyptian State lacks the political will to allow for independent organizing, and considers that those exposing human rights violations are a threat to “national security”. The provisions of the 2014 Constitution remain ink on paper whereas the State systematically violates constitutional rights with impunity.
The Rabaa massacre on 14 August 2013 was a horrific turning point for human rights in Egypt. At least 900 people attending protests in Cairo’s Rabaa al Adawiya and al-Nahda squares were killed by State actors, including at least 19 women protestors killed. Eight years later, the Egyptian authorities’ failed to hold anyone to account for the 2013 massacre. Instead, the Egyptian authorities have staged a mass show trial of 739 people, including journalists and photographers, with several individuals sentenced to death and hundreds of others serving lengthy prison terms over their involvement in the protests. The State’s response to the Rabaa massacre is an emblematic example of the State’s political will: to shield security forces from accountability and use the criminal justice system to exact revenge on survivors, families of victims, and anyone who dares to peacefully criticize the human rights situation in Egypt. Protests in Egypt are defacto banned.
National human rights organizations have estimated tens of thousands persons arbitrarily detained on political grounds since 2013. These arrests are effectively turning Egypt into an open-air prison where the security services are unrelentingly closing any remaining independent political, social and cultural spaces. Anyone defending and promoting human rights or voicing criticism to political, economic or social conditions faces arbitrary arrests, detention, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment, judicial harassment, travel bans, asset freezes, closure of NGO offices, restrictive legislation among others. They often face charges of alleged association with a banned organization, spreading false news, and threatening national security. This includes prolonged pre-trial detention including rotation or harsh sentencing. Standards of fair trial, regard for evidence, and due process have been tossed aside, and the Egyptian State aims to intimidate peaceful critics and treats them as criminals for simply exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. The implementation of Law No.149 of 2019 (the NGO Law) and its subsequent bylaws have imposed greater limitations on civil society organizations (CSOs) and further, contradicts the Egyptian constitution and Egypt’s obligations under international human rights law. The NGO Law has resulted in CSOs having to suspend activities, staff suffering harassment, arbitrary travel bans, asset seizures and reprisals in the form of prosecution and imprisonment. The UN Special Procedures have again raised concerns about the increasing shrinking of civil society space caused by the NGO Law which has limited civil society’s access to funding, regulates their activities and exposed them to supervision and regulation from the executive who have the power to dissolve them.
Egypt has been consistently cited in the UN Secretary General’s annual reprisals reports for its pattern of reprisals against defenders engaging with the UN. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention highlighted “a systemic problem with arbitrary detention in Egypt”, and it could constitute crimes against humanity. The UN Special Procedures raised serious concerns over inhumane prison conditions, including denial of family visits and legal consultation and denial of medical care that contributed to the deaths of many prisoners. The CEDAW Committee expressed its deep concern over gender-based violence, ill-treatment in detention by law enforcement officials, the lack of medical care and unhygienic conditions in prisons. The UN Committee against Torture (CAT) said in 2017 following an inquiry on Egypt that the facts gathered by the committee “lead to the inescapable conclusion that torture is a systematic practice in Egypt.” An analysis of Egypt’s 2021 report to CAT shows that “the real predicament lies in the lack of political will to end the crime of torture, as torture constitutes an essential means of governance for the authoritarian government in Egypt”.
When detainees are released, their release is rarely unconditional. The Police Act allows the National Security to exercise significant control over the lives of former detainees via the practice of ‘monitoring/follow-up’ which amounts to arbitrary deprivation of liberty and violations of the rights to freedom of movement, expression, peaceful assembly, and association; facilitates torture and other ill-treatment and violations to the right to privacy; and results in the infringement on other rights including the right to work and the right to family life.
Egypt has dropped three places to 166th in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index and according to Reporters without Borders (RSF), Egypt is now one of the biggest jailers of journalists in the world. The internet is the only place left where independently reported media information can be circulated. Authorities continued to block at least 600 websites including those of news outlets and human rights organizations.
The authorities have used morality and debauchery laws to arbitrarily arrest, detain and prosecute women social media influencers and LGBTQI+ people. Working class women have faced prosecution based on morality charges for posting online content that other women from the upper-classes also post without any legal repercussions. Since 2013, the Egyptian State has waged a campaign of arrests and prosecution against hundreds of people for their perceived or actual sexual orientation and gender identity through police entrapment of LGBTQI+ through dating apps or social media and also through random arrests on the street. The violations include violent assaults, torture (including forced anal exams), arbitrary detention, a denial of the rights to assembly and expression.
In October 2021, the Egyptian President declared the end of the state of emergency in the country, however this has negligible impact in practice because repressive laws have codified the exceptional state of emergency into ordinary law. Since 2013, a series of laws have been amended and adopted “to criminalise the work of civil society actors” and civic space, such as: Law 136 on Military Courts, Law 149 of 2019 (NGO Law and its regulations), Law 180 of 2018 controlling the Media, Cybercrime Law 175 of 2018, the Terrorist Entities Law (Law 8 of 2015) and the Anti-Terrorism Law (Law 94 of 2015).