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Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Furthering the public interest: A liberal NGO law

MPs passed a new NGO law just one hour before parliament adjourned for its summer recess, reports Gamal Essam El-Din

Gamal Essam El-Din , Wednesday 17 Jul 2019
A liberal NGO law
A liberal NGO law
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MPs voted on Monday in favour of a new NGO law which now awaits ratification by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to go into effect.

Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal told MPs the law creates new opportunities for civil society to play a greater role in Egypt. While “the law observes national security dimensions it guarantees that NGOs in Egypt can focus on furthering the public interest.”

Abdel-Aal insisted compressing the debate and vote on the law into a single day was not a result of foreign pressure.

“Foreign interests cannot compel the state or parliament to follow specific policies or agendas,” said Abdel-Aal. “We decided to postpone parliament’s summer recess for a week in order to discuss this important law which is in the public interest and sends a message to the world that Egypt is returning with strength to international and regional arenas and legislates solely to meet its national interests.

“Laws in Egypt never echo foreign voices. When parliament passed its own version of the NGO law in November 2016 Egypt was facing many challenges, particularly in security terms. Now Egypt is a strong state. We can never accept that legislation be a result of foreign pressure.”

Abdel-Aal was responding to six leftist MPs who announced that they would vote against the new law on the grounds that it had been rushed through parliament due to foreign pressure.

Diaaeddin Dawoud, a member of the leftist 25-30 bloc, claimed “the changes to the NGO law came about only after the government came under pressure from some international quarters and not as a result of internal demands.

“We refuse to accept any legislation drafted to satisfy foreign powers.”

Mustafa Bakri, an independent MP with Nasserist leanings, also said he opposed the newly-amended law which “opens the door wide for NGOs that send reports to foreign capitals that incite against Egypt.

“In 2008 the American ambassador in Cairo [David Welch] provided $1 million to four local NGOs to implement political agendas,” said Bakri. “Political funding has become a dangerous weapon that can spread chaos, particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

Bakri said a fact-finding committee had found a “handful of politicised Egyptian NGOs” obtained LE1.2 billion in funds from abroad between February and November 2011 in order to implement specific political agendas.

According to Bakri, most of the 48,000 NGOs operating in Egypt do so in the public interest “though a handful continue to exercise political roles and impose pressure to change the law in order to interfere with internal affairs and implement the political agendas of foreign capitals.”

Speculation has been rife in recent months that US congress members have been pressing for a change in the law. US senator Lindsey Graham, who was in Egypt two weeks ago and met with President Al-Sisi, has been a major critic of Egypt’s NGOs law. Late US senator and presidential candidate John McCain and Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, were also fierce opponents of the law. In a statement in June 2017, after NGO Law 70/2017 was ratified by President Al-Sisi, Graham and McCain said “the ratification of the legislation is a sign of a growing crackdown on human rights and peaceful dissent in Egypt.”

They slammed the law as “draconian”, claiming it effectively banned the work of many NGOs, and urged the law be brought in line with international norms. US Congress members also threatened to withhold a portion of US assistance to Egypt to protest against the law. Rubio noted “the law would have a terrible impact on Egypt’s ability to make reforms and had implications for US-Egypt relations.”

In November 2018 President Al-Sisi told the World Youth Forum in Sharm El-Sheikh that “the law was restrictive and reflects a sceptical view of NGO activities.”

In response to a question, Al-Sisi said he had received requests from a number of local civil society organisations for a new debate on the NGOs law.

“I agree, and I believe in the work done by civil society organisations,” said Al-Sisi. “The law reflected a fear of these organisations in Egypt… I want to reassure those who are listening to me inside and outside of Egypt that we are keen to promulgate a balanced law that regulates the work of civil groups in a good way.”

Al-Sisi proposed a committee be formed to hold a national dialogue on the NGO law and that the government should work on amending it.

Hafez Abu Seada, president of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), told Al-Ahram Weekly that he does not believe the new NGO law was passed under foreign pressure.

“Some foreign circles raised objections to the old law but in amending it the state and parliament only observed the demands of local civil society,” said Abu Seada. He said both foreign and local NGOs had asked for three major changes, all included in the amended law.

“The first change is that the activity of an NGO can only be suspended on the basis of a judicial ruling, not by administrative order, and that NGOs can be licensed upon notification.

“Other positive changes are that the activities of NGOs will fall under the supervision of the Ministry of Social Solidarity instead of a special apparatus to be set up by parliament. We now hope the executive regulations of the new NGO law will be issued soon, facilitating the activities of the civil society community.”

Talaat Abdel-Qawi, head of the General Union of NGOs, told the Weekly changes to the NGO law were a result of the national dialogue conducted between January and April 2019.

“The consultations resulted in the recommendation that NGOs be formed upon notification, in line with Article 75 of the constitution, and that NGOs come under the supervision of the Ministry of Social Solidarity,” said Abdel-Qawi.

“The law now meets the basic needs of the local NGOs community. What we have now is a new NGO law and not just an amended version of the old one.”

Mohamed Abu Hamed, deputy chairman of parliament’s Social Solidarity Committee, said on Sunday that the new law meets 99 per cent of the demands of local civil society organisations.

“The overhaul of this law was a result of consultations with 1,164 representatives of civil society. In drafting the law both government and parliament were keen its articles regulate in detail the performance of NGOs, making it easy for the executive regulations to be passed soon.”

Abdel-Hadi Al-Qasabi, head of the Social Solidarity Committee and leader of the majority coalition that strongly defended the NGO law when it was passed in November 2016, said the new NGO law achieves three basic demands.

“First, the law observes Article 75 of the constitution which states that citizens have the right to form NGOs and that they shall be licensed upon notification.

“Second, supervision of the performance of NGOs will be the responsibility of a central unit to be affiliated with the Ministry of Social Solidarity whereas the current Law 70/2017 placed NGOs under the monitoring of a special apparatus to be affiliated with parliament.”

“Third, and most importantly, the law eliminates all kinds of freedom-restricting penalties which led many to demand a change in line with international conventions.”

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 18 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A liberal NGO law

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