As part of a one-week visit to the United States, an Egyptian parliamentary delegation discussed Tuesday a number of controversial issues in a meeting hosted by the Middle East Institute – a Washington DC-based think tank.
A press statement Tuesday said the agenda of the meeting of the nine-member Egyptian delegation, led by parliament speaker Ali Abdel-Aal, covered important issues like Egypt's new NGOs law, religious freedom for Coptic Christians, and the funding of terrorism in the Middle East and Arab world.
The statement said Abdel-Aal indicated in a closed-door symposium on Egypt's internal political conditions that Egypt's new NGOs law mainly aims to secure transparency in terms of funding and performance. "We want the funding and activities of NGOs in Egypt to be as transparent as possible so that some of them do not find themselves implicated in funding terrorism or harming the country's national security," said Abdel-Aal.
Speaker Abdel-Aal also argued that the NGOs law goes in line with international conventions on civil and political and human rights. "This law aims to secure three objectives which are tightening supervision on foreign funding of NGOs, monitoring the activities of NGOs and their ways of spending money, and subjecting NGOs to state-imposed rules on auditing and accountability," said Abdel-Aal.
Speaker Abdel-Aal added, however, that Egypt's 89-article NGOs law, passed by parliament on 29 November 2016, has not yet come into force. "The executive bylaws of this legislation have first to be drafted and parliament would not hesitate amending it if implementation showed it would restrict the performance and freedoms of NGOs in Egypt," said Abdel-Aal.
The statement said Abdel-Aal also delivered a review of laws passed by Egypt's parliament in recent years, on top of which laws that facilitated the building of churches and helped fight illegal migration. Abdel-Aal said other important laws in the pipeline included fighting "flawed religious fatwas" that promote extremism and sectarian strife.
Egypt's NGOs law has faced sharp attacks since it was passed last November. Three high-profile US senators – former presidential candidate John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio – have sharply attacked the law. While McCain and Graham said in a joint statement that the new NGOs law is the latest sign of a growing crackdown on human rights and peaceful dissent in Egypt, Rubio said it would badly affect the independence of NGOs in Egypt. McCain even threatened that the law would impact US assistance to Egypt.
Many believe that Washington's decision last August to cut $100 million and delay another $200 million in military and economic aid to Egypt was a direct result of pressure from influential senators like McCain and Graham. Cairo described the decision as a misjudgment of the strategic relations between Egypt and the United States.
Sources said the agenda of the Egyptian parliamentary delegation in Washington includes meetings with senators McCain and Graham, heads of the US House's committees on foreign affairs and intelligence, and with majority and minority leaders in Congress.
The statement said the delegation will also meet with speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan and speaker of the Senate Orrin Hatch.
Parliament speaker Abdel-Aal's meeting with the Middle East Institute in Washington also covered the delicate issue of terrorism funding. A statement said Abdel-Aal was keen to explain the dangers of terrorism on Egypt coming from countries disrupted by civil wars, like Libya and Syria, and also from Gaza Strip which is dominated by radical extremists and Salafists, not to mention that Egypt is currently economically burdened with hosting as many as five million refugees who fled wars in their countries.
The statement added: "Speaker Abdel-Aal was keen in this respect to alert the attention of the Middle East Institute's officials to the dangers of countries sponsoring terrorism and funding media channels that support political Islam and jihadist movements." "We face a fourth generation of media wars that aim to break the morale of nations by publishing flawed reports on Egypt's internal conditions and giving political cover to terrorist organisations," said Abdel-Aal.
Informed sources said the meeting covered Qatar's role in funding terrorism and extremist TV channels and the decision of four Arab countries to cut diplomatic relations with Qatar last June in response to what they deemed its role in sponsoring terrorist activities.
The delegation's meeting with the Middle East Institute also focused on the rights of minorities in Egypt, especially Christians. Sources said Abdel-Aal was keen to refer to the new Church Building Law that helped facilitate the construction of churches in Egypt.
US Vice President Mike Pence said last week that he will visit Egypt at the end of December to discuss a range of issues with Egyptian officials, on top of which religious freedoms for Coptic Christians.
Tarek Radwan, head of the Egyptian parliament's foreign relations committee and a member of the delegation, told reporters last week that the attack on three churches in three Egyptian cities in the first half of 2017 was seized by some to claim that the government of Egypt does not provide enough protection to Coptic Christians. "I think the army and police did a lot in the last period to disrupt attacks against Christians and the more the country becomes stabilised, the more secure the conditions, helping all Egyptians perform their religious rituals freely," said Radwan.
The Egyptian parliamentary delegation began its visit to the United States Friday. In New York, the delegation held a meeting with Egyptian expatriates living in the United States. A statement said Speaker Abdel-Aal told Egyptian expatriates that they have an important role to play in standing up to US media attacks that paint a flawed picture of Egypt.
The delegation also held a meeting with the US-Egyptian Chamber of Commerce in New York. A statement said the meeting focused on discussing economic reforms that the government adopted one year ago as part of a deal with the IMF, and the role of the new investment law in making Egypt a more attractive investment destination.
Egypt's parliamentary delegation includes the House of Representatives Secretary-General Ahmed Saadeddin, head of the foreign affairs committee Tarek Radwan, head of the budget committee Hussein Eissa, and head of the pro-government "Support Egypt" parliamentary bloc and chairman of the Federation of Egyptian Industries Mohamed El-Sewedi. It also includes MP and businessman Mohamed El-Sallab, Coptic female MP Marian Azer, and MPs Karim Darwish and Amro Sedki.