A draft new law targeting non-governmental organisations’ funding would be the latest blow to Egypt’s beleaguered civil society and a further erosion of civil liberties
Egypt’s beleaguered civil society is facing new troubles in 2017, after a draft law was passed last November by the country’s parliament, designed to use the control of overseas funding and aid to get a grip on the activities of NGOs and even intimidate them into silence. “This law criminalises the work and funding of Egyptian NGOs – every organisation will be affected,” Amr Abdelrahman, head of the civil liberties unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a Cairo-based NGO, tells zenith. “It’s designed to paralyse civil society, it’s a disaster.”
The legislation was presented for discussion on 14 November and approved the next day, despite criticism voiced in a statement by six political parties along with 22 civil society organisations and NGOs working in the development field. The law passed swiftly through Egypt’s parliament on 29 November, just a day after the State Council approved the draft. It now needs only the signature of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to become law, although there is uncertainty about whether the law has been passed to el-Sisi in its current form or if it has been delayed.
The draft law is part of the wider crackdown on NGOs and human rights defenders that Egypt has witnessed in the last three and a half years, since the overthrow of President Morsi. “There is a concerted action aimed at creating a hostile environment for civil organisations and purging the Egyptian civil society. Under Mubarak, we had small ambiguous room for manoeuvre. Today, even that leeway is completely shut. This regime is way worse,” observes Abdelrahman.
The new bill sets unprecedented restrictions and puts civil organisations under direct security supervision. The crackdown intensified in the second half of 2016. In September, a Cairo criminal court issued an asset freeze order against a group of prominent Egyptian NGOs and human rights lawyers, implicating them in a 2011 case which indicted 37 NGOs of receiving illegal foreign funding – in effect prosecuting a number of NGO leaders for what many see as simply legitimate human rights work. Investigative judges have also issued multiple travel bans, frozen bank accounts and charged NGO workers with the serious charge of receiving and using unauthorised funds in activities harming national security.
Gamal Eid, founder and executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), was one of those caught in the dragnet, targeted in September with an asset freeze and added to the 2011 case. ANHRI provides legal assistance to victims of violations of freedom of expression, documents such violations, and campaigns to support prisoners of conscience and raise awareness of citizen rights, while lobbying the government, political groups and businesses to safeguard human rights.
Eid believes that after the asset freeze, the passing of the new NGO bill was a “logical step” to further tighten the grip on NGOs. “Since the latest freezing of assets, various organisations have suffered a setback in their activities. This NGO law is like a way to finish off what remains of their activism,” says Eid. A report from his organisation describes the draft law as aiming to “national[ise] the civil society and devastate its independence”.
Among the many controls and restrictions introduced by the 89-article draft law, a new supervisory body, the National Authority for the Regulation of Non-Governmental Foreign Organisations – including representatives from security forces, intelligence, the Central Bank and a number of government ministries – would monitor and regulate the work of international NGOs operating in Egypt and local NGOs that receive funding from overseas.
Organisations would be forced to apply to the agency for permission to receive foreign funding; a lack of response within 60 days would be considered a rejection, not an approval, with no explanation given. Any group that does not register within six months will be automatically dissolved. Penalties under the draft law are harsh. Any violation can be punishable with between one and five years of imprisonment and a fine of between 50,000 and 1 million Egyptian pounds ($2,700-54,000). Crimes deemed punishable by five-year sentences include cooperating with a foreign organisation to carry out civil society work without obtaining permits, and conducting or participating in field research or opinion polls without prior approval.
In addition, the draft law stipulates – in vaguely worded and broad terms – that organisations must not engage in activities that conflict with national security and public order, terms that could allow authorities to file charges against virtually any type of group.
“The new bill sets unprecedented restrictions and puts civil organisations under direct security supervision,” Khaled Dawoud, a member of the social-liberal Al-Dostour Party, tells zenith. “It will make it difficult to work not just for human rights NGOs but also charities providing educational, health and social services.”
Yet to its defenders, the draft law will help improve Egypt’s domestic security. MP Mohamed Abu Hamed is a member of the pro-government coalition Support Egypt, which voted overwhelmingly in favour of the law. He believes the new draft resulted from a need for transparency and integrity, since under the previous law, he claims, some international NGOs working in Egypt were found to be misusing funds for surveillance and intelligence gathering.
“With this amended law, we’ll be able to better differentiate those NGOs genuinely contributing to the country’s development from others coming to Egypt with another agenda [surveillance] and enforce transparency and integrity.” Meanwhile, the formation of the national authority will centralise the application and approval process for civil organisations, which will have to deal with a single body rather than approach several ministries, says Hamed.
Nevertheless, human rights activists point out numerous areas where the law would harshly punish NGOs for seemingly trifling transgressions. Sentences would be handed down to associations that make partnerships, even without funds involved, without written authorisation. An association that opens headquarters or offices in another location without written approval may be punishable by one year imprisonment and a fine of up to 50,000 EGP, says Eid, a human rights lawyer.
If the draft law is approved by the president, some organisations will continue to work as normal and others will shut down, while groups including EIPR are prepared to appeal in the Supreme Court.
In spite of the hard challenges lying ahead for NGOs in Egypt, political activist Dawoud believes that civil organisations will not disappear, however limited their operations may be.
Others are less optimistic. “At ANHRI we haven’t decided yet if we will continue to work or not, as an organisation, under such law,” Eid says. “As individuals, we will carry on as part of the human rights movement.”
(1 EGP = 0.0541752 USD)