On 17 November Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli ordered a committee to be formed to oversee the amendment of the NGO law.
A statement issued by the cabinet said the committee will be headed by Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali and includes representatives from other ministries and state bodies.
The committee will be given one month to suggest amendments to the existing law.
Amendments presented by the committee will then be subject to a national dialogue that will “bring together all those interested in the activities of NGOs to ensure the new law is satisfactory to all,” said the statement.
According to Wali, members of the ad hoc committee will be divided into groups, each one reviewing a section of the law and proposing changes.
“These groups will review laws regulating the performance of NGOs in other countries to see what lessons we can learn,” said Wali. “The timetable is short but we will do our best to finish within the alloted period.”
On 5 November President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi asked for revisions to be made to the 89-article NGO law which was passed by MPs in November 2016 and ratified by the president in May 2017. Almost immediately, the law attracted criticism from civil society organisations in Egypt and abroad.
Defending the existing law (70/2017), Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal said MPs had been keen to ensure it was transparent, allowed NGOs to be formed by notification, and that the auditing of NGO activities observed international accounting standards.
In a 14 November meeting with Gyde Jensen, chairperson of the German Bundestag’s Human Rights Committee, Abdel-Aal said “the committee formed to review the law in a national dialogue will propose amendments, after which parliament will discuss them to ensure they meet Egypt’s national security concerns while upholding the constitutional freedoms granted to civil society organisations.”
NGOs say they will use the national dialogue to seek changes to a number of restrictive articles.
Talaat Abdel-Qawi, head of the general union of NGOs, told the daily Al-Ahram this week that a number of articles need to be amended.
The section on penalties should be removed, not only eliminating custodial sentences for administrative offences but also reducing the fines levied which currently range from LE500 to LE20,000.
Abdel-Qawi also wants the conditions necessary for dissolving NGOs to be changed. Currently, he says, NGOs are seen as criminals until proven innocent rather than vice versa.
The law also needs to dovetail more closely with Article 75 of the constitution which stipulates an NGO can be formed upon notification. Currently state authorities can investigate for up to 60 days pending the issuing of a licence.
Hafez Abu Seada, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, told Al-Ahram Weekly the language of the law needs to be tightened.
Currently, it outlaws NGOs from pursuing political activities, “a loose term which needs to be replaced by the kinds of political activities NGOs should not perform”.
“What about an NGO which seeks to raise awareness of the importance of participating in political life, which urges citizens to join political parties or to vote in elections,” he asked.
Abu Seada said the current NGO law was passed when relations between the government and NGOs were marked by mutual suspicions.
“State authorities distrusted NGOs. Officials and MPs alike believed that NGOs had played a destructive role during the political upheaval between 2011 and 2015,” says Abu Seada.
“The government found that more than 1,000 NGOs were affiliated with the banned Muslim Brotherhood and were supporting the group politically and funding its militant activities. These NGOs were licensed as charities but were undertaking political activities.”
On the other hand, Abu Seada points out, NGO criticism of security forces and reports on human rights abuses were highly embarrassing for the government which sought to contain their activities and restrict civil society as a whole.
“All the prison sentences, hefty fines and high licensing fees should be revoked, and the law should be reworded to fully conform with Article 75 of the constitution.”
Mohamed Abu Hamed, a member of parliament’s Social Solidarity Committee which drafted the current NGO law, argues the national dialogue should not be limited to civil society representatives.
“We want a balanced law. While I agree prison sentences should be phased out I do not believe the foreign funding of NGOs should be left without any kind of government or parliamentary oversight,” said Abu Hamed.
“The only draft MPs will approve is one that takes national security concerns into account.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 22 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: NGO law under the microscope