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Egyptian draft law set to criminalise the activities of NGOs

The implementation of the Associations’ Law will lead to the death of civil society in Egypt, say critics
President Sisi has been criticised for introduction of legislation that will restrict activities of NGO's in Egypt (AA)

Egyptian NGOs and human rights organisations have expressed their disapproval of The Associations’ Law, which was drafted by the Egyptian Ministry of Social Solidarity at the end of June. The draft bill introduces fundamental limits on the activities of NGOs and imposes harsh penalties on those who violate the terms, as well as extending the state’s control over their funds. An amendment to article 78 of the Egyptian penal code issued by president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on 21 September also envisages life sentences for individuals receiving foreign funds that are not authorised by the state.

The Ministry of Social Affairs has rejected all the proposals for the new draft law to be discussed in coordination between the ministry and the NGOs and has set the deadline for all the related organisations to register with the ministry by 10 November. 

“This draft, for the first time, legally recognises the role of the security apparatus in checking NGO activities through the Coordinating Committee,” said Mohammed Zaree, a project manager for the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “The committee is composed of eight government bodies plus one representative of the Ministry of Interior and one from the Egyptian Intelligence. We are talking about security bodies that have never been reformed and have a veto power on foreign funds directed to Egyptian organisations and on the registration of international NGOs,” he added.

Since the draft was first leaked in June, several Egyptian NGOs and civil society organisations quickly expressed their disapproval of the new law. Twenty-nine of them signed a common statement labelling the bill as repressive, and aimed at restricting civic rights and criminalising the activities of NGOs.

According to the constitution, associations are allowed to form by notifying the government and do not need any formal approval. With the new law, the Ministry of Social Solidarity can reject activity it deems “illegal”. The ministry also has the authority to suspend any organisation by administrative decree, to interfere with an organisation’s decisions, and to object to the appointment of board members. Vague language in the law allows the ministry to revoke legal permits for organisations based on wide interpretations of the law.

“State control is not a new thing in Egypt,” said Amr Abdel Rahman, the director of the civil liberties unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “What is new is the penal code section that talks about imprisonment for at least one year and up to 15 years and a fine of at least 100,000 Egyptian pounds. So, for example, for a tiny mistake concerning foreign funding, a simple volunteer risks three years in jail.”

“Sooner or later we will face the judicial system,” said Norhan Tharwat, the media officer of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center. “Because our work often tackles government decisions and we don’t want to register with the Ministry of Social Solidarity. Its interference could prevent us from working as before,”

According to the draft law, any grants, aid or donations received by associations are considered public funds. “The law mentions excessive and insane fines, something like one million dollars,” said Rahman. “In work that should be based on the free initiative of the society, and Egypt needs the work of these NGOs - especially in the developmental sector - the state should be encouraging people to join these organisations instead of blocking them,” he added.

State interference

According to the Ministry of Social Solidarity, around 40,000 NGOs currently work in Egypt. Most of them are involved in development, philanthropic and religious activities, while only a few are working on human rights issues. The new draft represents a threat to civil society activism, especially for those companies, law firms and human rights organisations that will be forced to accept the interference of the state. According to Ali Nasr, a legal researcher working at the Egyptian Center for Public Policy Studies: “To prevent the passing of the law right now, we don’t have a parliament and I don’t think the judicial system will do anything to prevent the adoption of this law, so the only feasible way is through the UN.”

Egyptian authorities have been able to withstand pressure from the international community – as in the case of the NGO trial, where 43 NGO representatives, 19 of them American citizens, received prison sentences of up to five years in June 2013, despite the US secretary of state labelling the verdict as “contrary to the universal principle of association”. If adopted, the law would lead to the emergence of what Zaree called “GO-NGOs, a mix between governmental and non-governmental organisations, where the structure is not governmental, but the board and the direction are influenced by the government. This means the death of the genuine role of civil society in Egypt, which should collaborate with the state without being subordinated or influenced by it.”

Rahman, instead, pointed to the internal debate as a possible exit from this impasse “For sure the human rights sector will pass through a bad period, at least during this year,” said Rahman. “We are prepared for the worst scenario, like closing our offices or going to jail, but I would be more optimistic in the medium-long term because people will not continue giving (president) Sisi passive support forever.

“Once we have a parliament. he will be forced to work with it. Political disagreements among MPs will receive much more public attention: this will have consequences even in the streets, and people will demand freedom and justice once again.”

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