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NGOs lose ground in Sisi's Egypt

NGOs in Egypt did not expect to have fewer freedoms under Sisi's presidency. But regressive laws and regulations governing them are now being reinforced.

Shortly after Sisi’s election, in a July 2014 newspaper ad, the Ministry of Social Affairs requested all Egyptian NGOs to get registered under Law 84/2002. This law undermines the already limited margin permitted for NGO activities and allows for more restrictions and regulations on establishing them.

The Ministry of Social Solidarity ad, in the sports section of Al Ahram 18 July 2014.

Several NGOs issued a joint statement refusing to register under this restrictive Mubarak-era law. They expressed the hope to find more freedom in Egypt under the presidency of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. In response, the Ministry of Social Affairs agreed on 1 September 2014, to prolong the deadline for registration of NGOs by two months, until 10 November, due to pressure from the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights (NCHR).

Now that the deadline is coming closer, it is worth taking a look at what this registration means for the NGOs and their affiliated partners.

Restrictions

Law 84/2002 is mainly concerned with community development associations and civic foundations. According to Human Rights Watch, the law allows the government to deny NGO requests to affiliate with international organisations. The law also gives the government the “power to shut down these NGOs at will, freeze their assets, confiscate their property and block funding.”

Several NGOs have demanded the abolition of this law since its enactment in 2002. The response of the different governments was weak; numerous drafts were proposed, but none of them became binding law–until now. In July 2014, the last proposal by the Ministry of Social Affairs was rejected by 29 NGOs, stating that it allowed the government to place even more limitations and restrictions on them.

The latest draft of the bill, according to critics, disregards Article 75 of the 2014 constitution, which allows civic associations to operate independently without the control and monitoring of the authorities. In the view of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the proposed law, if adopted, would “criminalise the operation of NGOs and subordinate them to the security establishment, shutting down the public sphere in Egypt to all but regime supporters.”

Agents of change

In a 1999 survey by the Arab Network for Development, Egypt’s civil society sector employed the equivalent of 629,223 full-time workers. This accounts for $1.5 billion in expenditures; approximately two percent of Egypt’s GDP. In her article in Al-Ahram Weekly, Mariz Tadros states that there are more than 16,000 NGOs registered in Egypt in 2003.

Larry Diamond explains that civil society entails “the realm of organised social life that is voluntary, self-generating, (largely) self-supporting, and autonomous from the state, and bound by a legal order or set of shared rules.” He distinguishes civil society from “society” in general in that it involves citizens acting collectively in a public sphere to express their interests, passions, and ideas, exchange information, achieve mutual goals, make demands on the state and hold state officials to account.

Therefore, NGOs are considered substantial agents of social and political change within civil society. However, due to the authoritarian political environment in which they exist in Egypt, they are not as effective and operative as they should be. There is a lack of support towards these organisations, and they usually have to do the job on their own, without substantial help from any other agents of political change.

Background

Before Law 84/2002 got enacted, the legal regulations concerning NGO activities in Egypt were enshrined in the previous Law 32 of 1964. With this law the government had absolute authority and power over the activities and conducts of NGOs. Under Law 32/1964, the government was able to simply permit or ban any NGO at any point in time. The Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak regimes all used Law 32/1964 to constrain and restrict the rights of individuals to freely form associations, and to practice their basic civil and collective rights.

The Egyptian and international NGO community tried several times to persuade subsequent governments to amend the restrictive Law 32, or at least alter some of its clauses. Due to immense political pressure, in 1998 the government entitled the People’s Assembly to consider a new draft law of associations to substitute Law 32.

However, international human rights organisations were not satisfied with these amendments. The US-based organisation Human Rights Watch condemned the draft, saying it stimulated fear within Egypt’s NGO community, arguing that it “would permit excessive government interference in the affairs of NGOs and their management structures.”

The fight against Law 32 continued until 1999, when Law 153 amended it in the same year. Enacted for a very short period, this law was later declared unconstitutional, so that a new draft law became necessary. 

New NGO law

During the following parliamentary debate in 2002, opposition parties declared their objection to the restrictive provisions of the new draft law that took up most elements of Law 153. However, 90 percent of the MPs came from the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP); hence, the opposition’s criticism had no effect.

Law 84/2002 passed and the government maintained enough legal means to interrupt the activities of NGOs at any time. Law 32/1964 was repealed along with any other provisions that were in conflict with law 84/2002.With Law 84/2002, the regime established new rules to regulate the relationship between NGOs and the state.

For example, it removed controversial requirements and restrictions on the rights to form associations. Furthermore, all NGOs had to gain the approval of the Ministry of Social Affairs before accepting foreign funds. Because of efforts by Egyptian NGOs to gain space in the political arena and initiate changes towards political liberalisation, the authoritarian regime continued to limit their activities and keep them controlled.

Discussion of the laws

Advocates of the restrictive approach argue that NGOs in Egypt were mainly elite-led and completely detached from the wider base of society, incapable of reaching out to the less educated and politically less conscious population.

Hence, they would neither contribute to the empowerment and mobilisation of people nor function as proper channels for social and political expression of the broader population. According to this logic, NGOs were hardly entitled to more freedom and space for social and political activism.

However, though many Egyptian NGOs were indeed founded by influential upper-class people, they expanded to include people of different social and intellectual backgrounds. Moreover, even if these organisations reach only small numbers of people compared to the whole population, they start important public discussions, raise awareness and might thereby trigger social and political change.

Outlook

The status of NGOs has not been changed since Abdel Fatah al-Sisi became president in June 2014. In addition to the recent crackdown on human rights and political activists, journalists, bloggers and others, the current government has not taken any steps towards more rights and freedoms for civil society organisations.

Cases of suppression include the two-year sentence in May 2014, for political activist Mahienour El Massry, and eight others for violating the Protest Law. They were charged for demonstrating outside of a court of law that was trying the two policemen accused of killing Khaled Said. Also, in June 2014, the sentencing of Egyptian activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah and 24 other activists to fifteen years in prison for demonstrating in front of the Shura Council and thereby violating the Protest Law. Mahienour, Alaa Abdel Fattah and two others were eventually released on bail.

Many hoped that the government would by now have realised that the democratic process can never be completed or sustained solely by changing the top authorities without developing and altering the bottom institutions and organisations.

If NGOs are left in peace by the authorities to conduct their social and political activities, in the long run they will help to develop a politically and socially conscious society. However, if the authorities constantly intervene in their affairs, and always try to contain and limit their activities and conduct, they will never be able to complete their missions and long-term goals.

About the author

Ola Kubbara is a PhD candidate in the Euro-Mediterranean studies programme at Cairo University, Faculty of Economics and Political Science. She works on German political foundations and their democracy assistance in Egypt. She has a BA in political economy and MA in comparative politics from the American University in Cairo, focusing on civil society as an agent of political change in Egypt.


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