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Egypt MPs and rights activists debate controversial new NGOs law

Mariam Mecky , Sunday 4 Dec 2016
Seminar
The photo shows the panel of the seminar organized and moderated by the Law and Society Research Unit at the American University in Cairo on the new NGOs law featuring Talaat Abdel-Qawy, president of the Public Union of NGOs, Mohamed Zaree, a member of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, MP MP Mohamed Abo Hamed and MP Nadia Henry (not pictured) on December 1, 2016. (Photo: Mariam Mecky)
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In a seminar about the new NGOs law Thursday, representatives from the Egyptian parliament and civil society organisations discussed the impact of the newly approved NGOs law on the work of civil society organisations and whether it is in line with the constitution and international human rights conventions.

Talaat Abdel-Qawy, president of the Public Union of NGOs and a former member of the 50-member Committee that drafted the 2014 Constitution, said in the seminar organised by the Law and Society Research Unit (LSRU) at the American University in Cairo, that new NGOs law is positive for civil society organisations and is in accordance, particularly, with Article 75 of the constitution that addresses NGOs work.

Article 75 of Egypt’s constitution stipulates that “all citizens shall have the right to form non-governmental associations and foundations on a democratic basis, which shall acquire legal personality upon notification. Such associations and foundations shall have the right to practice their activities freely, and administrative agencies may not interfere in their affairs or dissolve them, or dissolve their boards of directors or boards of trustees save by a court judgment.”

On the other hand, Mohamed Zaree, a researcher and member of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, argued in the seminar that the newly approved law has “does not conform in any way to international conventions as well as the constitution.”

On Tuesday, two-thirds of Egypt’s MPs passed a new 89-article law aimed at regulating the operations of NGOs in the country, after being reviewed by the State Council on its constitutional consistency, despite criticism from rights groups which condemned some of its articles.

The law has to be ratified by President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi before it goes in effect, replacing Law 84 of 2002 which currently regulates the work of NGOs.

MP Mohamed Abo Hamed, who is deputy head of parliament’s social solidarity committee that drafted the new NGOs law, contended that “it [the new NGOs law] is on the side of the civil society organisations.”

Explaining the rationale

Abdel-Qawy, whose organisations supports the new legislation, said that the main arguments against the new law focus on penalties for violations, the new body to govern and supervise NGOs and certain restrictions, such the prohibition on conducting surveys without state approval.

In the new NGOs law, Article 70 stipulates that a new body - the National Foreign NGOs Regulation Apparatus (NFNRA) - would “oversee all the activities of foreign NGOs in Egypt, including all forms of their cooperation with governmental and non-governmental institutions inside the country, as well as supervise all forms of foreign funding given to local Egyptian NGOs and civil society organisations."

The body will include 10 representatives of the ministries of defence, foreign affairs, justice, interior, the general intelligence apparatus, Illicit Gains Authority and the central bank.

Abo Hamed argued that the logic behind NFNRA is centralise the process of applications and approvals for civil society organisations.

“When a foreign NGO intends to work in Egypt, it would normally have to approach several ministries for approval, but as per this law, the NGO would have to approach only one body,” said Abo Hamed.

Abdel-Qawy also praised the creation of such a body, saying “we had a coordinating committee from the ministry of social solidarity with some representative from other ministries, but not as [broad] as this one.”

According to the new law, NFNRA has to approve foreign funds for NGOs within three months of an application. If there is no response by the NFNRA at the end of this timeframe, the request would be considered rejected.

Asked in the seminar what NGOs should do if after the waiting period funding is rejected, Abdel-Qawy said that there are other funding sources for NGOs, varying from donations, membership subscriptions to self-generated profits.

“Only one percent of NGOs are foreign funded,” Abdel-Qawy contended.

Abdel-Qawy went on underlining what he sees as the positive aspects of the law and their rationale.

He argued the NGO law achieved an “important” thing by creating legal accountability for heads of civil society organisations.

Article 87 of the approved sets one to five-year prison sentences, and fines of EGP 50,000 to EGP 1 million, for violations the law by a head of an organisation.

Moreover, Abdel-Qawy hailed Article 14 that forbids NGOs from conducting fieldwork or public opinion surveys as well as publishing surveys without government permission.

MP Abo Hamed, who is a member of the parliamentary pro-government coalition Support Egypt which overwhelming voted for the law, seconded Abdel-Qawy, saying that the article prevents information gathering by foreign parties “disguised as research or development projects.”

Sharp criticism of law

On the other hand, MP Nadia Henry criticised the law, saying that “NGOs should not be under threat of imprisonment.”

“The law has to be in accordance with international conventions on human rights. There should be no doubts about the constitutionality of the law. And it is not clear why the philosophy of this law would be based on fear.”

Article 2 of the new NGOs law states that the operations of NGOs should follow executive bylaws to be issued later, and must not "disrupt national security, public order and decency."

“We all for national security and we salute the state’s efforts in that regards and we do help in the process; but it would not be possible to [achieve these goals] through such a law,” MP Henry said.

“If you are supervising 84,000 NGOs with [only] a problematic 100 or even 1,000 NGOs, such a law should not have been issued.”

“There are MPs who object to the law and how it passed parliament without sufficient time for representatives to discuss the bill."

In mid-November, the ‎law, which was drafted by the chairman of parliament's social ‎solidarity committee, Abdel-Hadi El-Qasabi, and ‎‎203 other MPs, was preliminarily approved.

On Wednesday, the opposition 25-30 parliamentary bloc called on the president not to ratify the NGOs law, asking him to return it to parliament for further discussion.

The 25-30 bloc's statement said the approved law would turn hundreds of thousands of civil society organisations’ workers into "suspects."

“Even from an economic point of view, the new body [NFNRA] costs more money. Why not develop ministerial staff instead of spending more money?” said Henry, who sits parliament’s economic committee.

Agreeing with Henry, Zaree, who worked on previous NGOs draft laws, slammed the law saying that “it is an announcement of war on civil society.”

“As per the new law, if a civil society organisation wants to do something as little as hire a foreigner as an intern, the NFNRA — which includes representatives of ministries as defence and foreign ministry — has to approve,” Zaree objected.

“Should 10 ministries gather to hire this one intern?” he exclaimed.

“I am not even talking about how the law is treating civil society organisations as suspects. I’m here talking about the financial burden,” Zaree noted, saying that the new law adds up bureaucratic (and thereby economic) obstacles in front of NGOs.

“I know of a development NGO that has been trying to register for the past two years and they have already paid EGP 70,000, and they are not  sure whether they will be allowed to register or, if they do, get sources of funds.”

“The new law stipulates 60 working days not 60 days to answer registration applications per the constitution; This means three months to approve a request, and then wait for the social solidarity ministry to give the green light to the banks to allow the NGO to open an account; this could take up to a year.”

“We do not oppose supervision per se but we differ on the mechanisms of supervision,” Zaree remarked.

Zaree highlighted that the new law prohibits NGOs from working in fields permitted by the constitution, citing the laws Article 13 that bars NGOs from working on issues addressed by syndicates and political parties.

Article 75 in the constitution only prohibits NGOs from conducting secretive work or work of a military or quasi-military nature, he said.

“Moreover, the new NGO law prohibits the conduction of any human development activities not in accordance with the state’s development plan,” Zaree said.

He pointed out that the new NGO law created new penalties - including fines and prison sentences - for violators, whereas all previous laws simply used penalties stipulated in the penal code.  

“In the case of polls or surveys, if I did a field survey for the project, I can be personally imprisoned for five years and fined, or the NGO itself can be dissolved.”

Zaree argued that the new law does not overall conform to the constitution, and also contradicts international human rights conventions that affirm that every citizen has “economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.”

“Human rights organisations work in Egypt is already almost 'finished' due travel bans [on members] and other decisions ,” he said.

Several rights activists have been banned by the authorities from travelling this year.

In November, three renowned rights activists, Aida Seif El-Dawla, co-founder of the Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, Azza Soliman, head of the Centre for Egyptian Women Legal Assistance (CEWLA) and Ahmed Ragheb, director of the National Community for Human Rights and Law (NCHRL) were banned from travelling while on their way to attend international conferences.

There has not been any confirmation El-Dawla was banned from travel for facing charges, but both of Ragheb and Soliman were told by authorities that they are facing investigation in a case related to alleged illegal foreign funding of a number of NGOs in the country.

Zaree himself has been banned from travelling since May when he attempted to fly to Tunisia to attend a workshop. He has not yet been summoned for questioning.

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights, where Zaree works, is under investigation in the so-called NGOs Case.

In March, the justice ministry re-opened investigation in the case, which dates back to late 2011, where dozens of NGOs have been accused of receiving illegal funding from foreign governments and institutions.

A number of prominent activists are being investigated in the case, including Hossam Bahgat, a founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), Gamal Eid, a lawyer and founder of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), and Mozn Hassan, director and founder of Nazra for Feminist Studies.

All three have been banned from travel. Bahgat's and Eid's assets have been frozen. The activists are appealing these decisions.

In April, an Egyptian administrative court ruled that non-governmental organisations have the right to receive foreign funding.

Two weeks ago, 60 international and local organisations as well as 22 NGOs and six political parties released two similar statements condemning the new NGO law, saying it would “end civil society.”

Economic impact

“This law would not allow NGOs to help in this time of economic crisis in Egypt, including small and medium enterprises attempting to offer humanitarian assistance,” Zaree argued.

MP Henry said: “There is a [negative] economic impact for this law. Egypt is facing one of its toughest economic times; civil society has an active role to play in allievating the people’s suffering and reducing poverty.”

Since November, prices of many essential goods have risen after the government freely floated the Egyptian pound as part of it’s economic reform plan to alleviate a currency shortage and stabilise the country's flagging economy.

“The state calls for a strong social safety net, but they forget that this net already exists through civil society organisations, in unemployment, infrastructure, human development, and volunteer work." Henry said.

“If this law is ratified by the president, it would add burdens on the Egyptian citizen and the government.”

Calls for a new law

“Before 2011, there had been calls by civil society organisations for a new law to replace the 2002 NGO law. From 2012 to 2016, there were 36 drafts law,” said MP Abo Hamed.

“It was always said that the law should not be drafted by the government but by parliament. It has always been on [the parliament's] agenda to draft a bill, so we gathered previous draft laws and ideas.”

“We heard about the cabinet-sponsored bill only in public statements, but we did not officially receive anything until 2 November,” the MP said, adding that the parliament has been working on a draft bill since August.”

Abdel-Qawy, a former MP during Mubarak’s era, said, “I have been working on one ever since 2006. The Ministry of Social Solidarity has had a final bill at the end of 2014; [the ministry] conducted societal dialogue on the draft and submittid it to the cabinet this September.”

“Meanwhile, MP Abdel-Hadi Qasdi exercised his constitutional right to submit a bill proposal as per law. The bill was submitted with 203 MP signatories, not only the required 60 signatures,” Abdel-Qawy said.

MP Abo Hamed said that, “Parliament’s NGO bill was not a secret; it was public knowledge that we submitted the draft law.”

Zaree disagreed with Abo Hamed's assertions, saying that “No one heard this bill was submitted on 6 September.”

Asked by Ahram Online about when the draft became public, Abo Hamed said “We have been working on it for eight months, but it was announced publicly when it was referred to the [social solidarity] committee at the start of September.”

About the inclusion of national civil society bodies such as the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) and National Council for Women, in discussions on the draft bill, Abo Hamed said that, “The constitution mandates that the bill be sent to all parties concerned, but we should not delay our work to wait for their feedback because our main target was to make sure the law has constitutional consistency.”

“The NCHR report said that the bill might not be constitutional, but it is not their area of specialisation, it is the State Council’s,” he told Ahram Online.

Parliament versus Cabinet bills

MP Abo Hamed said that “The main area of contention on the law between us (parliament) and the social solidarity ministry is [NFNRA].”

In a letter to parliament last week, the ministry opposed the creation of the new body, arguing that the ministry itself can perform regulatory activities and warning that the creation of NFNRA would be a costly bureaucratic move, especially at a time when the government is struggling to reduce the budget deficit and implement administrative reform.

“The minister [Ghada Waly] proposed that the body would be under the auspicies of the ministry and she head it herself,” said Abo Hamed, adding this proposal was rejected as it contradicts the purpose of NFNRA of being a comprehensive body.

The new law stipulates that NFNRA would carry out its duties under the jurisdiction of the Cabinet.

Abdel-Qawy pointed to another difference between the parliament and Cabinet proposals — the Cabinet draft bill only referred to penalties already existing in the penal code, while the newly approved law stipulates new penalties.

Road forward

MP Abo Hamad said that the new legislation's bylaws will be drafted by the Cabinet, adding that the parliament’s social solidarity committee will take part in the process.

“We will make sure everything the bylaws are clear."

“Upon its ratification, any citizen can appeal the constitutionality of any of the law's article in front on the Supreme Constitutional Court,” Abo Hamad said.

The new law gives existing NGOs one year to adjust their legal conditions, instead of six months as was proposed in an earlier draft circulated two weeks ago.  

“This new law will be implemented before the end of this parliament session; if it obstructs the work of civil society we should revisit it in parliament,” MP Henry said.

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