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Egypt passes 'superficial' amendments to NGO law, rights groups say

Violations of contentious law no longer carry jail time, but rights groups say changes are 'rebranded repression'
Rights groups have accused Egypt's Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of cracking down on civil society (AFP/File Photo)

Egypt's parliament has approved amendments to the country's controversial NGO law, but rights groups have already rejected the changes as "deceptive and superficial".

The amendments, which passed overwhelmingly in a parliamentary vote on Monday, remove jail time from the penalties of the law, which controls how non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operate in the country.

Instead, fines between 200,000 and 1 million Egyptian pounds ($12,070-$60,350) will now be issued, Reuters news agency reported.

The 2017 law, which previously carried a prison term of up to five years, restricts NGOs from playing any role outside of development and social work activities.

'The new draft is but a re-marketing of the repressive law that contains a hostile attitude towards civil society groups'

- Egyptian rights groups in joint statement

Critics decried it as an attempt to outlaw humanitarian work in Egypt, which has seen a widespread crackdown on dissent since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power in 2014.

Human rights activists say the changes to the NGO law - which Sisi must still ratify - are insufficient, however.

Last week, 10 Egyptian rights groups, including the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, rejected the new version of the law, saying it was "rebranded repression".

"The majority of changes in the draft NGO law are deceptive and superficial," they said in a joint statement, urging the international community to intervene.

"The new draft is but a re-marketing of the repressive law that contains a hostile attitude towards civil society groups."

Egyptian lawmaker Mohamed Abu Hamed, however, defended the amended version of the law.

"The law ... satisfies all the previous concerns raised by local and foreign civil society groups," Abu Hamed told AFP news agency on Monday.

Crackdown on dissent

More than two-thirds of Egypt's 596-seat parliament approved the bill, with only six MPs rejecting it, local media said, according to AFP.

In addition to removing jail time as a penalty, the amendment allows NGOs to receive money from Egypt or abroad as long as it is deposited in a bank account within 30 days.

The government then has 60 days to challenge the transfers. 

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Under the old version of the law, donations exceeding $550 had to be pre-approved, and if no approval was granted within 60 days, the request was automatically denied.

Last December, an Egyptian court acquitted 43 NGO staff, including EU and US citizens, that had been accused of receiving illicit foreign funds to stir up unrest during the 2011 uprising that ousted longtime President Hosni Mubarak.

Sisi has faced international condemnation for his ongoing crackdown on civil society groups since he took power in 2014, a year after former president Mohamed Morsi was deposed.

Rights groups have accused Sisi's government of human rights violations and unjustly detaining tens of thousands of people, including journalists and activists.

In April of last year, Human Rights Watch said the Egyptian government had carried out "a crackdown almost unparalleled in Egypt's history on nongovernmental organisations and activists".