The roller coaster on which Arab countries have ridden since the 2011 uprisings has given a particularly rough ride to indigenous human rights organizations. Embattled since their founding in the 1980s and 1990s, and often accused of carrying out foreign agendas due to their reliance on international support and reference to universal human rights standards, groups in several countries are now fighting for their very existence.

During the political and social thaw that followed the uprisings, human rights groups in some Arab countries gained unprecedented public support as well as more cordial relations with governments, only to lose these gains just as quickly when political space closed in 2013–2014. Activists in Egypt in particular, but also throughout the region, are worried that governments will take advantage of the current chaos and preoccupation with security concerns to shut them down. This could end a generation’s worth of work to build public awareness of human rights concerns.

Backlash in Egypt and Bahrain

“Right now there is no question of opening up more space for human rights work; it’s about holding onto the tiny margin we still have,” said a veteran activist from Egypt, speaking at a recent conference in Casablanca co-hosted by the National Human Rights Council of Morocco and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

In Egypt, activists face various forms of intimidation as well as renewed pressure to comply with a draconian 2002 law. Much of the Egyptian human rights community remains dependent on funding and technical support from the international community, and activists fear that new penalties for accepting foreign funding or a prospective new NGO law will be used to put them out of business. Many activists have faced increased harassment and intimidation in recent months, with rumors circulating of a possible police crackdown. Intimidation has gone as far as death threats in some cases, driving some senior figures in the community to leave Egypt at least temporarily.

The situation is as bad or worse in the Gulf countries, including Bahrain, where most human rights groups have been forced to leave the country and senior activists have been imprisoned repeatedly. But the worsening conditions in Egypt were a cause of particular concern for conference delegates from other countries, because the Egyptian groups are among the oldest, strongest, and most capable in the Arab countries. If they can’t hold their ground in the post-Arab Spring backlash, who can?

North African Exceptions

Tunisia, by contrast, has seen a blossoming of human rights and other civil society groups concurrent with its political opening. Such groups—whether well-established organizations that survived former Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s era or new ones established after the 2011 revolution—were able to play an important role in shaping the country’s 2014 constitution, widely hailed as the most progressive in the region. But their work is far from done. One Tunisian participant at the Casablanca conference noted it would be a major challenge, over many years, to ensure that the rights promised in the constitution are actually delivered in law and in practice. But at least the atmosphere is a welcoming one for human rights work, a fact that international organizations recognize by working out of Tunis rather than Cairo, where several have closed offices recently.

Morocco provides a bit of a mixed case. Civil society organizations have operated there with significantly greater freedom than elsewhere in the region, but space for human rights work has become constrained recently. Participants in the recent conference appeared torn between gratitude to the Moroccan government that they could hold their gathering without harassment and concern that one of the country’s principal human rights organizations had just announced that it would close due to government obstruction. On November 6, prominent human rights advocate Maati Monjib announced that he will close the Ibn Rochd Center for Studies and Communication, founded in 2006, due to repeated obstruction of the center’s activities over the last six months.

Monjib’s announcement appeared timed to embarrass the Moroccan government in advance of the second annual World Human Rights Forum, which was held on November 27–30 in Marrakech. But Monjib is not alone. The Moroccan Association of Human Rights and Moroccan League for Human Rights have also canceled their participation in the forum, citing increased government pressure on their activities since the interior minister accused such groups of obstructing the fight against terrorism in a July 2014 speech.

Lack of Grassroots Support

Gaining public support for human rights work, or at a minimum avoiding public hostility, is another major issue for Arab organizations, most of which function in countries where government officials and government-influenced media work hard at discrediting them.

In Egypt, rights activists enjoyed a surge of public support and credibility during the country’s brief political opening in 2011–2012, but with the resurgence of authoritarian rule since the military coup of July 2013, they have been vilified in the media. Many had hoped, perhaps naively, that the removal of former president Hosni Mubarak would be enough to set thorough change into motion. Now, Egyptian activists see their plight as connected to the failure of youthful revolutionaries to make headway during the period in which public sentiment was with them.

Even in countries where there is no government-led vilification of activists, public support can be problematic. A Libyan human rights activist at the Casablanca conference said that after decades of rule under former president Muammar Qaddafi in which all civil society activity was illegal, Libyans have no real sense of the value of nongovernmental organizations or of human rights. A conference participant claimed to have survey data showing that a plurality of Libyans consider torture an acceptable practice. While the Libyan public is not hostile to civil society work, the activist said, in general it is viewed as something to be done part time or as a hobby.

Human rights groups are trying to think of new ways to reach the public, as well as government officials, by connecting their issues to security, the preponderant current concern in the region. A senior Tunisian activist said that while his country’s 2013 constitution contained many positive provisions for rights, what will really matter is whether those rights are implemented via laws and practices. The major challenge, he said, will be striking a balance between fighting terrorism—which itself could bring down the democratic transition—and securing rights.

Activists agreed they need to work harder on cultivating allies in the media, popular culture, the business community, and among women and youth, in order to formulate a less elitist, more down-to-earth message that resonates with the public.

Divisions Over Islamism

Engagement with Islamist organizations remains a strongly controversial topic among secular human rights activists.

Some Egyptian and Tunisian participants in the Casablanca conference said there was nothing to be gained from engaging with activists affiliated with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood or Ennahda parties, whose narrow policies had endangered or ruined (in the case of Egypt) prospects for successful democratic transitions.

Other participants, particularly those from Morocco and some from Tunisia, argued that this was shortsighted. “Many Tunisian leftists who swore they would never work with Islamists have found themselves doing so,” said one. Some participants said that secularists had been wrong to speak out more forcefully against human rights abuses carried out under deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi than under current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. “If progressives are not the first to speak up against repression,” said one participant, “they have no future.”

While Arab human rights activists have never had an easy time, it is at once predictable and ironic that they should face even greater pressure now. On the one hand, it is not surprising that Arab governments want to silence those who might criticize their excesses in combating not only terrorism but also forms of peaceful protest. On the other hand, it is ironic and alarming that governments are trying to do in the very civil society organizations that might be able to construct a positive alternative narrative—of justice, citizenship, good governance—in opposition to the dark vision put forth by extremists such as the Islamic State.