Two rounds of national dialogue on amending Egypt’s controversial NGOs law were held last week. Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali told the media on 5 January that a third round is expected in the coming period.
“There will be a dialogue with foreign NGOs which operate in Egypt,” Wali said, indicating that “local Egyptian NGOs, human rights organisations, businessmen associations and the General Union of NGOs participated in the first two rounds.”
Wali said amendments presented by the groups will be part of a report to be submitted to the cabinet and parliament.
She said the national dialogue on the existing NGOs law (70/2017) came upon the request of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi who asked during a World Youth Forum meeting on 5 November for revisions to be made to the 89-article law which was passed by MPs in November 2016 and ratified by the president in May 2017.
Talaat Abdel-Qawi, head of the General Union of NGOs, also told the media on 5 January that the national dialogue recommended a number of radical amendments.
“Once these pass by parliament, I think we will then have a new NGOs law, and not just an amended version of the current one which has not yet been implemented,” Abdel-Qawi said.
“First of all, the dialogue recommended that NGOs be formed upon notification,” Abdel-Qawi said. “This goes in tandem with Article 75 of the constitution and meets a basic demand of the NGO community.” Currently, state authorities can investigate for up to 60 days pending the issuing of a licence.
Wali, however, indicated it was “recommended that only local NGOs will be formed under notification.
“Foreign NGOs or local NGOs which comprise foreign founders or members, as recommended by the dialogue, will be set up only upon approval from state authorities,” Wali said.
Abdel-Qawi revealed that the national dialogue also recommended that the high licensing fees — LE10,000 — required for setting up an NGO should be reconsidered.
“All participants agreed that this high financial demand stands as an obstacle in the way of forming NGOs,” Abdel-Qawi said, adding, “it was also recommended that the documents required for establishing NGOs will be enshrined in the former NGO law passed in 2002.
“There is a kind of consensus among NGO activists that the 2002 NGO law, particularly in the area of licensing conditions, was very permissive and liberal, and all now want to return to this list rather than the current restrictive one,” Abdel-Qawi said.
As for foreign NGOs, Abdel-Qawi said it is recommended that the licensing fees be reduced from LE300,000 to LE100,000.
“This is important and attractive for NGOs to come and exercise activities inside Egypt, while giving the administrative authority — the Ministry of Social Solidarity — the right not to license them or freeze their activities in case they become embroiled in activities harmful to national security and interests,” Abdel-Qawi said.
As for foreign funding of NGOs, Abdel-Qawi said there has been a lot of debate on this highly sensitive issue. “The current law, drafted by parliament’s Social Solidarity Committee, adopted a very sceptical view and so it was very restrictive on this point,” Abdel-Qawi said.
“The current law stipulates that a national council regulating the performance of NGOs be set up to supervise their licensing, work and activities, as well as supervising foreign money going to local NGOs.”
Abdel-Qawi said the proposed amendments recommend that NGOs should get approval on foreign funding within a maximum of 30 days, and if there is no response within this period of time, the approval should be automatically granted.
Supervision of this money will be exercised by the Ministry of Social Solidarity — instead of the current national council — at a later stage. “But if the foreign money was rejected, NGO activists would be allowed to appeal to the Administrative Court,” Abdel-Qawi said.
He indicated that there is also some form of consensus among participants in the national dialogue that all articles related to the National Council on Regulating the Performance of NGOs in Egypt should be revoked.
“All agree that this will be a very bureaucratic council that could intimidate NGOs from performing in Egypt,” Abdel-Qawi said. “All recommend that the Ministry of Social Solidarity should be the only one authorised to regulate the performance of all kinds of NGOs in Egypt and that this will take us back to Egypt’s liberal 2002 law on NGOs.”
As for the current law’s section on penalties, which has been sharply criticised because it includes prison sentences, Abdel-Qawi indicated that the two rounds of the national dialogue recommended that all custodial sentences for administrative offences be removed.
“They also recommended that the conditions necessary for dissolving NGOs have to change or at least be clearly defined,” Abdel-Qawi said, adding that “all agree that the dissolution of an NGO should come only by judicial order, and not by an administrative decree.
“They, however, agreed that NGOs can’t be involved in any clandestine activities such as joining armed militias or illegal political entities or performing discriminatory practices based on gender, race or colour,” Abdel-Qawi said.
Wali said the state’s philosophy on NGOs is that they should help in achieving national development plans. “As long as NGOs aim to help Egypt move forward, I think we should give them all the facilities necessary to do their job,” Wali said, agreeing that NGOs “should be exempted from any kind of taxes”.
Abdel-Qawi said the second round of the national dialogue on the NGOs law was held in Alexandria, drawing representatives from as many as 150 NGOs affiliated with the governorates of Beheira, Gharbiya, Kafr Al-Sheikh, Marsa Matrouh, Daqahliya, and Damietta.
“In this meeting, participants recommended that 20 per cent of NGO boards should be composed of young members and that women should make up 30 per cent,” Abdel-Qawi said.
Hafez Abu Seada, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, told Al-Ahram Weekly that most human rights activists agreed that articles 70 to 77 of the National Council of Regulating the Performance of NGOs should be annulled
“We also asked that other articles be repealed in order for the new NGO law to go in line with international conventions and charters in this respect, particularly those imposing prison sentences and others dealing with the dissolution of NGOs,” Abu Seada said.
“All in all, we want 11 articles revoked and 33 articles amended,” Abu Seada said. “In general we want a new liberal NGO law, or to adopt the draft law issued by former minister of social solidarity Ahmed Al-Boraai in 2013,” Abu Seada said.
“The role of NGOs is very important in achieving Egypt’s ambitious 2030 sustainable development plan, and attracting adequate foreign investments to help meet this end.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 10 January, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: An overhaul of the NGOs law