North Africa, West Asia

Egypt, swallowing civil society

The new draft law for NGOs proposed by the Egyptian state further narrows the space for civil society, and openly contradicts the new constitution.

Chalaine Chang
19 August 2014

The scope of civil society continues to narrow in Egypt with the announcement in late June of the state’s latest draft law governing NGOs operating in the country. The proposed law would impose greater oversight from the government, through the implementation of a “coordinating committee” that essentially has veto power over associations’ activities and finances, as well as stiffer penalties for those that do not comply with regulations.

With the establishment of the protest law last autumn, the soaring number of arrests of activists, the outlawing of the Muslim Brotherhood and the April 6 movement, as well as the sentences for the Al-Jazeera trial, dissidents in the country are being forced further into a spiraling black hole by the government.

Similar drafts were successively proposed under Mubarak in 2010, SCAF in 2012, Morsi in 2013, and under the interim government again in late 2013. However, none were as restrictive as the one currently on the table. What is significant this time around is that the coordinating committee would have representatives from both the Ministry of Interior and the State Security apparatus, but as Mohamed Zaree, Egypt program manager at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), points out, “neither of [them] have been reformed following the revolution in 2011.”

Following the announcement of the potential law, a group of 29 domestic Egyptian NGOs released a joint statement criticising it as “a flagrant breach of the constitution and Egypt’s international obligations,” and said that the law would “shut down the public sphere in Egypt, to all but regime supporters”.

The bill has been criticised for its ambiguous language, broad prohibitions, overreaching oversight over NGO activities, and its additional inhospitality towards international NGOs. It would thoroughly affect all aspects of an NGO’s operation, from its formation to necessitating approval from the Ministry of Social Solidarity to undertake activities.

Registration or removal

On 18 July, the ministry published a statement in the state-run newspaper Al-Ahram, informing “all entities that practice civil work without permits to rapidly regularise their status...within 45 days to avoid any legal accountability according to the relevant laws and regulation”. In short, NGOs must register as associations or face the consequences.

Many Egyptian NGOs are registered as law firms or civil companies in order to avoid interference from the state, given the law passed in 2002 that allows the government to deny the registration of associations on such vague grounds as being a “threat to national unity”. The ministry's administrative body will have the authority to deny registration or halt activities of an NGO that “contravenes public order or morals”.

In 2002, the New Woman Foundation (NWF) was one of the NGOs whose registration was denied on such obscure grounds. “They made the mistake of saying the security apparatus vetoed the registration”, says Dr. Amal Abdel Hadi, co-founder of NWF. “At that time the law never said anything about the security apparatus. So in fact, they were giving us a reason that was illegal.” NWF brought the case to the administrative court, won, and successfully registered in 2004.

However, with a clause in the current draft that essentially legalises the security apparatus’ interference, there will be little hope for appeal in the court system. Organisations that do not register as associations would face the repercussions of having their assets frozen or their licenses to operate rescinded, effectively shutting them down.

Prohibitions and penalties

The proposed law, rife with ambiguities, would impose restrictions on what activities an association could carry out. It would bar any association from engaging in “political activities” – the parameters of which remain undefined. Associations would also be banned from working with trade unions and associations, effectively cancelling out any labour rights advocacy work.

Independent field research and opinion polls will also be axed, as the bill outlines that an NGO must seek approval from the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics prior to addressing society with any surveys. Working with a foreign association or organisation without a permit from the Ministry of Social Solidarity would also be considered a criminal offense. Breaching any of these prohibitions would result in a fine of at least EGP 100,000 (GBP 8,400 or USD 13,985) and at least one year of imprisonment.

Beyond doling out prison time and fines, the administrative body will be authorised to be involved with or to dissolve NGOs at their discretion. They could object to or annul an association’s resolution, or object to members on the administrative board of an association.

The administrative body will have the power to dissolve an association if they receive foreign funds without approval, move offices without first notifying the government, or if an association is found to be “unable to realise its purpose”.

In a report from Human Rights Watch, deputy Middle East and North Africa director Joe Stork pointed out that this version of the draft law would “require rights groups to seek permission to continue reporting on abuses from the very entities abusing those rights”.

Guillotine to grants

Current legislation requires associations to seek governmental approval prior to raising funds domestically. This has made domestic donors reluctant to contribute to financing work on human rights, and made foreign funding crucial for the continued operation of NGOs in Egypt. A new provision in the bill however, would further limit outside donations, by obliging the association to receive prior approval from the committee, or else face potential dissolution. Notably, the draft law does not specify on what grounds funds could be denied.

Moreover, any form of grants or funding to an association would be considered public assets that fall under the penal code. Any inconsistencies, however minor, would thus be considered a felony, with penalties of imprisonment ranging from three to fifteen years – a major stretch from the current 24 hours to three years. NGOs would also be obligated to submit annual reports to the coordinating committee detailing their activities, finances, and internal management decisions.

Pushing out foreign NGOs

The web would be even more complex for international associations working in the country. Their registration process is pocked with obstacles, with international NGOs reporting that the documents required for registering frequently change, further complicating the process. “Even if they somehow manage to register in the country, they will have to ask for licenses and permissions for any step they make”, says Zaree.

Moreover, according to the bill, their activities must be “consistent with the needs of Egyptian society and the priorities of development, while showing due regard for public order and morals”. They are prohibited from operating if they receive any direct or indirect government funding, if they disseminate the views of any political party, or if they “infringe on national sovereignty”.

The coordinating committee would have full discretion as to whether or not the NGOs meet these conditions and would have the authority to deny registration, or suspend or annul their license to operate.

Constitutional contradictions

Critics have pointed out how the draft law is at odds with the constitution ratified in January of this year, on two major points. Firstly, the constitution stipulates that non-governmental associations would “acquire legal personality upon notification”. However, the process outlined in the bill grants the coordinating committee approval or denial of a registration, which is clearly not representative of a notification basis.

Secondly, the constitution prescribes that associations “shall have the right to practice their activities freely, and administrative agencies may not interfere in their affairs or dissolve them”. Evidently, this is entirely inconsistent with the latest draft.

“The authorities know very well that it contradicts the constitution”, says Zaree, “but the constitutional court will take up to ten years to complete. So basically, they’re playing for time”. According to Zaree, the discordance between the documents is an affront to citizens, but “they [the government] don't care. They are humiliating the constitution and the will of the people who voted for it”.

Closing in on critics

It is notable to recall that in December 2011, Egyptian police raided seventeen NGO offices across Cairo, which resulted in 43 NGO workers being convicted of operating without a license and receiving foreign funding in June 2013.

The Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) had their offices raided twice in the span of six months – once in December 2013, and again in May 2014. ECESR was also raided once in 2011 by the military police. But now, “the fear of NGO raids is the highest it’s ever been”, says Nadim Mansour, director of ECESR. “The work has always been risky, but it’s riskier now.”

Mansour says that since there was a moderate opening for civil society following the revolution, NGOs had somewhat of an opportunity to expand and become more structured, so now in turn, “the threats [from the state] are stronger”.

Given the compromised climate for criticism, foreign NGOs are becoming sceptical of maintaining operations in the country. HRW closed its Cairo office in February of this year due to “concerns about the deteriorating security and political environment in the country”. Mansour says the pressure on, and exit of, international NGOs is “alarming” and “showcases the threatening environment that we’re facing in Egypt.”

Evidently, the space for civil society is becoming more and more claustrophobic. Recently, the Freedom and Justice Party was forced into dissolution and banned from parliamentary elections, while a HRW delegation that came to present a report on their investigations into the Rab’aa dispersal were denied entry into the country. The announcement of the draft law signals a build-up to the bleakest of environments for oppositional opinion.“They don’t want anyone to exist, unless they can control them 100 percent,” says Abdel Hadi. 

When the draft law will actually be passed is still up for speculation. Meanwhile, local NGOs continue to draw attention to a campaign to oppose its implementation.

According to Zaree, more consultation with NGOs is needed to establish a fairer law. He explained that since 2011, NGO members have attended many hearings, but the authorities have not taken anything into consideration: “after every consultation we found a disastrous draft”. Zaree attributes the roots of the problem to “the government not understanding international standards”, as well as “a lack of political will”. 

Even as the space for civil society in the country continues to narrow, NGOs remain resilient. According to Abdel Hadi, if the law is indeed passed, “we’ll fight as we have been continuously fighting since the 1980s”.

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