Egypt's parliament approved a new NGO law Tuesday to regulate the work of civil society organisations, despite criticism from rights groups condemning some of its articles.
The 89-article law was drafted by the chairman of parliament's social solidarity committee, Abdel-Hadi El-Qasabi, and 203 other MPs.
Forty articles of the law were approved by the house after discussions on Monday and Tuesday.
The bill will now be referred to the State Council for a review on its constitutional consistency before returning to parliament for a final vote.
Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal said that parliament welcomes any comments from the cabinet on the new law.
The current law regulating the work of NGOs, Law 84 of 2002, will be retired once a new law is ratified by the president
A version of the new bill was recently leaked to the press, and has since been widely criticised by human rights organisations.
Articles in the new law
The law mandates in its third article that all NGOs should make adjustments to legalise their staus within six months of the issuing of the law by submitting all data on financing sources, activities, protocols, and programmes to the government, and should amend their operations to abide by the new law.
The operations of NGOs should be compatible with executive bylaws that will be issued later, and must not "disrupt national security, public order and decency."
Article 13 prohibits NGOs from working in areas that fall within the domain of syndicates, political parties.
The article bans NGOs from involvement in any work of a political nature.
Article 14 forbids NGOs from conducting fieldwork or public opinion surveys without permission, and also forbids NGOs from publishing surveys without permission.
Article 70 stipulates that a national body would be established to regulate the work of foreign NGOs and their methods of cooperation with Egyptian governmental and non-governmental organisations.
The body will include representatives of the ministries of foreign affairs, justice, interior and defence, the general intelligence apparatus, and the central bank.
Article 87 sets one year to five year prison sentences, and fines of EGP 50,000 to EGP 1 million, for violating the law's articles.
A statement signed by 22 NGOs and 6 political parties Tuesday crticised the law, saying it would “end civil society” by putting it under the control of government and security bodies.
The statement described the law as more oppressive than an alternative draft of a new NGO law prepared by the cabinet, which they also rejected.
The alternative cabinet-sponsored draft has been submitted to parliament but has not been scheduled for debate.
The statement charged that the law violates the Egyptian constitution and Egypt's commitment to international conventions.
The signatories rejected the creation a national body to regulate the work of foreign NGOs threatens their right to function since the new body would have the right to reject NGOs applications and permit requests, even after a lengthy waiting period of 60 days.
The statement also attacked the law for putting in place penalties of jail sentences and hefty fines for violations.
The new law represents "[the latest in a series] of hostile moves against civil society," which began with the 2011 foreign funding case.
The Ministry of Justice had accused several NGOs in late 2011 of illegally receiving funds from foreign governments and institutions.
In June 2013, a Cairo criminal court sentenced 32 NGO workers - many foreign - to 2-5 years in jail, and also handed a suspendend sentence of one year in jail to 11 others.
The court also ordered the dissolution of several foreign NGOs including the American Republican Institute, the American Democratic Institute, and the American Feedom House.
However, 17 foreign NGO workers - among thse convicted in 2013 - had been allowed to leave the country in March 2012.
In 2016, the government reopened the 2011 case and proceeded to prosecute a number of Egyptian NGOs and their staff.
Those currently facing trial in the 2011 foreign funding case include the NGO Nazra for Feminist Studies and its founder Mozn Hassan.
Also under investigation is renowned rights activist Hossam Bahgat, a journalist and founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), and Gamal Eid, a lawyer and founder of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), who have been banned from travel, had their assets frozen, been charged with “receiving foreign funds illegally,” and running offices for international organisations without permission.
In April, an Egyptian administrative court ruled that non-governmental organisations have the right to receive foreign funding.
"Both the laws of 1964 and 2002, which suppressed rights, look better than the new law," Magda Adly, director of El-Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Violence and Torture Victims, told Ahram Online.
"The new law renders the NGOs an appendix of the government; it transforms NGOs into governmental organisations since it forces non-governmental organisations to work according to the government agenda,” added Adly.
Adly said she also rejects the establishment of a national supervisory body that includes representatives of security institutions, which she charges would control the work of both Egyptian and foreign NGOs.
She also criticised the articles of the new law that impose jail sentences on alleged violators.
"The new law prohibits research and publishing, and it contains broad terms such as national security and the public system," which will be difficult to define, Adly argued.
The law, according to Adly, not only restrict the work of rights organisations which might be critical of the government actions, but also harms charity organisations and leaves no space for independent civil society.
"They are planning to end NGOs in Egypt. It is a series of actions against civil society that have included freezing the bank accounts of NGOs, putting NGO activists on trial, and banning others from travel. I wonder why they don’t appoint an [police] officer to run every NGO instead of all that?" she said.
George Ishak, a member of the semi-governmental National Council for Human rights, told Ahram Online that, "We (the NHCR) were waiting for a new law to regulate NGOs, we were partners in the draft with the government and we had many meetings and workshops, and observations on that draft, but we approved it. But suddenly MP Abdel Hady El-Qassaby rushed a new law through and threw all these efforts away.”
"If this law is issued we will file a case against it for being unconstitutional," Isaak said.
Ishak added that the NCHR did not receive a draft of the new law, charging that the reason for this is that "we now live in a secret state.”
Parliament bill vs cabinet bill
Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Magdi El-Agati Minister and Social Solidarity Ghada Wali had asked parliament speaker Ali Abdel-Aal on Monday to postpone the vote on the legislature’s draft NGO law until parliament can look into a cabinet proposal.
El-Agati said a government-drafted NGO law was approved by the cabinet at the end of October and referred to parliament on 2 November.
"Although MPs have legislative authority, I urge you to wait until the government draft is also discussed," said El-Agati to parliamentarian reporters.
MP Ali Badr told Ahram Online that the government draft had only been received two days before a scheduled debate on the parliament bill.
"it is the legislative right of the MPs to draft a law, and what happened is that MP El-Qasaby submitted the draft which was approved by 203 other members, and it was scheduled to be discussed. Then, we were surprised to see, 48 hours before the draft's discussion, that the government was submitting another law."
"There is no contradiction between the drafts; the government and NGOs are welcome to make all their comments. We have already held many meetings with NGOs and the parliamentary committees on human rights and social solidarity, and there was consensus. This is clear from the MP’s unanimous approval of the law in Monday’s discussion," added Badr.
Badr stressed the new law does not restrict the work of NGOs, saying it actually aims at “the strengthening of civil society."
"We are not rushing anything; we are still in the phase of discussions and the sessions are public. A version of the law is available in parliament or on the official parliament website for everyone to read and give us comments," the MP said.
Ahram Online was not able to locate a copy of the approved law on the parliament's official website, although the text was published by media outlets.