Egypt's NGOs continue struggle with restrictive draft law

Mariam Rizk , Monday 22 Sep 2014

Civil groups in Egypt say that a new draft law governing NGOs is unconstitutional - and designed to hamper groups that serve as watchdogs or spark criticism

Well known novelist Sunallah Ibrahim speaks at an event for Gudran NGO in Alexandria, which provides cultural services to the public, and is one of hundreds of NGOs nationwide which will be impacted by a new law. (Photo: Gudran Arts and Development)

Egypt's NGOs say they are facing uncertainty after the government announced they will have to officially register under a law from the era of toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak – part of what they say are continual efforts to eliminate certain civil groups that might be seen as posing a threat.

The social solidarity ministry announced in July that all civil groups must be registered with the government, as per law 84 issued in 2002, which critics say was used to hamper rights organisations' mobility and freedom under Mubarak's regime.

The ultimatum – initially set at 45 days – expired in September and was rolled back to 10 November amid harsh criticism from local and international rights groups.

The approaching deadline comes as representatives of NGOs, members of the state's National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) and ministry officials are holding meetings to draft a new law to govern how civil groups will operate in Egypt.

A draft of the law which surfaced in July was met with widespread criticism, as rights groups said it would eliminate "all but regime supporters" from the public sphere and put Egypt in a league with other countries with "terrible NGO statutes".

Destiny unknown

The social solidarity ministry has not specified what measures could be taken against groups that don't register in time, whose applications are rejected or who refuse to operate under an oppressive code.

A ministry official said there's no intention to extend the ultimatum again or a clear decision or planned measure concerning the unregistered entities. He said NGOs should have settled their legal status long ago when the 2002 law was first issued.

"This is a delayed step from 2002," said Kamal El-Sherif, head of the minister's office. "But there will be understanding. These are our NGOs."

However, many of those working in NGOs and their mediators are not optimistic.

"I will completely stop working in human rights advocacy," said Mohamed Zarie, head of the Arab Organisation for Penal Reform. "I have no desire to operate on illegal terms or to spend the rest of my life in a struggle."

Zarie believes mandating groups to register under an old law means there will be no new NGO law, at least in the near future, but that authorities have instead "decided to thrash civil society organisations."

Several drafts, but no law

Local and international human rights organisations struggled during decades of security surveillance under the rule of Mubarak. They have also been regularly harassed, contested and accused of spying in the three years following the 2011 popular revolt.

In December 2011, at least 17 Egyptian and US groups were raided on accusations of "conspiring against the state."

In June 2013, 43 of the NGOs' employees were tried – over half in absentia – and given prison sentences for running unlicensed organisations, receiving foreign money and conducting political training without permits.

Meanwhile, talks have been taking place to create a new law that will respect freedoms of NGOs and prevent the state from oppressing or interfering in their activities.

There was a near-successful attempt in 2013, when a consensus draft was reached under former social solidarity minister Ahmed El-Boraie.

But the latest draft that surfaced this year was starkly different from the 2013 version and rather similar to the disputed law 84 from 2002.

The NCHR, a mediator between the ministry and NGOs, said it was "shocked" by the 2014 draft – which according to Talaat Abdel-Qawi, head of the NGO union, contained "remarks" that had been added by the ministry to existing drafts.

New discussions began with a seven-member panel, which is expected to soon issue a "near final" copy, Abdel-Qawi said.

The law is likely not to be passed, however, until an elected parliament is sworn in, likely before the end of this year. Until then, Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi holds legislative power.

Problems with 2014 draft

The joint statement from local rights groups in July said the new bill, in addition to being restrictive, breaches several articles in Egypt's constitution – amended and then passed via referendum in January of this year.

For example, article 75 states that citizens have the right to form legal non-governmental associations if they notify authorities and that the group can only be dissolved by a court ruling.

However, under the new draft bill, civil groups are given legal status after 60 days from the date of notification, allowing the administrative body to reject the establishment of the NGO within this period.

The bill also allows a civil group to be dissolved by court order if it fails to achieve its purposes, obtains funding without a permit or changes its headquarters without notifying authorities.

It further describes prohibited activities in ambiguous language, with illegal work anything that "threatens national unity or contravenes the public order or morals."

Another sticking point is that NGOs will be governed by a coordinating committee, comprised of representatives from eight governmental bodies, which will have broad authority to regulate their activities or reject funding proposals without having to provide legal reasons.

Violators of some provisions of the law are subject to at least one year imprisonment and/or a fine of at least LE100,000.

The government says the law aims to ensure transparency in NGOs' funding and activities so they're not used as a front for illegal conduct.

In an interview on private television channel Sada El-Balad, Social Solidarity Minister Ghada Wali said she preferred the law to be passed after a parliament is elected "because there's a lot of uproar and disagreements" surrounding it.

"We cannot deny this country is subject to foreign interference and NGOs are fertile land for that," Wali said.

Taking aim

The push for NGOs to register while a new law is being drafted raises questions as to whether specific groups are being targeted, particularly those working in human rights advocacy.

Manal El-Tibi, a rights activist in the NCHR, says authorities usually target rights groups who make a "fuss" and stir criticism, while ignoring charity organisations which might have bigger problems.

"Rights groups reveal the violations of different governments while charity groups do not concern them in any way," El-Tibi said.

She had a hard time herself registering her organisation, the Egyptian Centre for Housing Rights (ECHR). She first submitted a request in 2003, but only gained the right to register years later after a court ruled in her favour in 2010.

Zarie agrees, saying that the deadline to register takes aim at centres for strategy, research, journalism and legal assistance.

He says he has also faced hardships with two groups he has led. A proposal for funding from the European Union for the Organisation to Help Prisoners has been stalled in court, he says, as authorities have neither accepted nor rejected the request.

"I have been paying the needed funds from my own pocket for four years now," he said.

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