Civil society in Egypt has been struggling for a long time with the laws governing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and, over the last few years, this struggle has become iconic in a conflict with the government.
The struggle to freely express and associate has become one of the major battles of the revolution, as political expression and activity have woven themselves into every aspect of Egyptian society.
With over 80 million citizens and around 40,000 registered local NGOs, despite a history of highly restrictive NGO laws, Egypt is described as having “one of the largest and most vibrant civil society sectors in the developing world”. The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (“ICNL”) explains that the Egyptian government never used an outright ban on civil society; it conveniently provided “enormous discretionary powers to the Ministry of Social Solidarity.”
Prior to the Egyptian Revolution, on February 17, 2010, the Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”) issued a first midterm evaluation report with 171 recommendations for Egypt that touch on “political and civil rights, including the State of Emergency, the future anti-terrorism legislation, monitoring of elections, the legislation addressing torture, sectarian violence, and the NGO law.”
Egypt accepted 135 of these recommendations, four of which were specifically on reforming the law 84/2002: “The first cycle revision for Egypt was not a genuine opportunity to review the human rights conditions as the Working Group session was overshadowed by the Egyptian government’s use of its diplomatic relations to limit a constructive debate, preventing real concerns from being raised while denying all human rights abuses,” the report said. Egypt’s second evaluation is scheduled for October 2014, to be held during the twentieth session of the Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review.
Following the Egyptian revolution and despite a rapid and insistent expansion of civil society, the government’s relationship with NGOs only worsened, due to multiple attempts to pass more restrictive laws and an actual physical crackdown on existing NGOs.
In February 2012, several NGOs were raided and later, in highly contested cases, judges convicted forty-three local and international civil society workers to one, two, or five years in prison for operating in Egypt without a license as well as receiving foreign funds.
Enshrined in Article 75 of the Constitution, all citizens are permitted to form an NGO, and that organization will acquire legal personality upon notification. The article continues to say that “[s]uch associations and foundations shall have the right to practice their activities freely, and administrative agencies may not interfere in their affairs or dissolve them, or dissolve their boards of directors or boards of trustees save by a court judgment.”
Unfortunately, since the passing of the Constitution, government action has not reflected the freedom to associate, a right that many NGOs have been struggling to acquire.
Over the last year, other laws have been proposed and/or passed that appear to target “terrorism” or “national security,” but in reality permit the security apparatus to arrest thousands of civilians and prohibit protests, warrant the judiciary to charge hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters with capital punishment, and the government to pass laws that further restrict the freedom of expression and association.
On June 26, 2014, the Ministry of Social Solidarity and Justice invited several NGOs to participate in the writing of the most recent draft law. In a July 9, 2014 press release, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) indicated that “[t]he result of these discussions was a draft NGO bill that was far better than any of the drafts previously put forward by the government.”
The draft law was submitted to the United Nations High Commissioner, however, it was pushed aside for a different and more restrictive draft. The EIPR highly criticized it as one of the most repressive since half a century, referencing Law 34, 1964.
The draft law is problematic on multiple fronts and criticized by dozens of Egyptian organizations as well as several foreign entities. Riddled with ambiguous language, the draft law provides for a “Coordinating Committee” with regulatory authority over civic organizations.
According to the July 9 press release, the “[c]ommittee is comprised of eight government bodies, including a representative of the Interior Ministry and a representative from the general intelligence.” Laws involving the security apparatus serve as painful reminders to human rights advocates of the unfulfilled goals of the revolution.
EIPR states “[t]he security apparatus has undergone no reform or restructuring despite repeated calls for such since January 25, 2011, and most of its members responsible for human rights abuses have faced no accountability.”
This new draft law requires an association to be registered with the Ministry of Social Solidarity and Justice and the association will be deemed a legal entity after sixty days unless the Ministry rejects it based on the prohibited activities of Article 11.
Prohibited activities include 1) forming a military or paramilitary formation or detachment; 2) threaten national unity, violate public order or morality or advocate discrimination against citizens on account of sex, origin, color, language, religion, or creed; 3) practice any political or trade union activity exclusively restricted to political parties and trade unions; 4) seek profit or practice any profit-oriented activities; or 5) conducting field researches or surveys for projects in the field of national work without obtaining the approval of the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (“CAPMAS”).
The law permits obtaining money from within Egypt provided the Ministry is notified, but any activity of a foreign organization in Egypt or receiving external funding is subjected to the review of the Coordinating Committee.
Approval from the Ministry has always been highly subjective to government discretion. The ICNL emphasized that “[i]n practice, [the Ministry’s] authority has been brought to bear against organizations and individuals that have crossed the government’s ‘red lines’ in pushing for social reform and political liberalization. Since the 2011 Revolution, the exact location of the ‘red lines’ has grown less clear, and while civil society remains vibrant, a climate of uncertainty prevails.”
In a report criticizing the draft legislation, Human Rights Watch recalls that in the last year, Egyptian courts banned the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the April 6th Movement. Additionally, the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights offices were raided twice in six months. “Egyptian groups have shown great courage, resilience, and professionalism in the face of intense government pressure and repressive laws.,” Joe Stork goes on to say, “If this draft becomes law, it would spell the end of the independence these brave groups have fought to maintain.” However, that independence was never legal, only tolerated by the government.
On July 18, 2014, the Ministry of Social Solidarity and Justice announced that all NGOs (“entities carrying out civil society work”) must re-register with the Ministry or risk being dissolved within 45 days. The deadline was eventually extended until November 10, 2014. However, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) along with twenty-five NGOs submitted a memo to Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab calling on the government to retract the draft NGO law and use the draft law that had been presented to the United Nations High Commissioner, to revoke the notice requiring NGOs to register with the Ministry, and request technical consultation from the UN when developing any association law.
The Minister of Social Solidarity, Ghada Waly, announced on October 2 that the November 10 deadline for organisations to "reconcile their legal status with the existing NGO Law" would not be extended.
Most recently on September 21, Article 78 of the Egyptian Penal Code was amended stating that anyone who receives foreign funding for the purpose of harming national interests will be punished by life imprisonment and a fine of no less than half a million Egyptian pounds.
The article previously was “strict imprisonment” and a fine of 1,000 Egyptian pounds. If the crime is committed by a public servant or during a time of war, the punishment can be increased to capital punishment with a fine of 500 thousand Egyptian pounds.
A major concern with this new amendment is that the term “national interest” is not defined specifically and allows for a broad or narrow interpretation. Furthermore, many NGOs throughout the country rely on foreign assistance for the basic functioning of the organization.
Abla Fahita. Wikimedia Commons/Fair Use.Harming national interest is a recurring theme since the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power. Thousands of citizens have been arrested and detained including members of political opposition groups, activists, journalists, and the unfortunate individual who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Even Egypt’s most famous puppet, Abla Fahita, was accused of inciting terrorist activity.
The extent of the Egypt’s violations of human rights is well documented in published press releases and statements by international and national civic groups and human rights organizations but no amount of pressure has been able to curb the government’s desire to reign civil society in Egypt. If the law is passed and enforced, human rights groups will have to request permission from the government to collect and document the human rights violations committed by the government.
Egypt is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which stipulates in Article 22, that no restrictions can be placed on the exercise of the right to freedom of association, except which is necessary in the interest of national security.
However, in section 3 of that article, State Parties may not take “legislative measures which would prejudice, or to apply the law in such a manner as to prejudice, the guarantees provided for in that Convention.” Egypt is also a signatory to the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights that in Article 10 reiterates the right to the freedom of association.
Egypt is a nation where historically any political expression was limited to football chants and to charitable volunteer opportunities. It is a country where a revolution was fueled by people’s desire to become involved and see positive change. It is a society that survives off civil society, a vast network of organizations that fill the voids where the government is unable or unwilling to do its duty.
A draft law like the proposed one, the amended penal code, and the setbacks to the freedom of association and expression are serious obstacles to civil society and threaten the values that Egypt has expressly committed to upholding through its Constitution, the international treaties that it is a signatory to, and its personal commitment to uphold democratic transition.