A marathon six rounds of national dialogue on amending Egypt’s controversial NGO law ended this week.
Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali told the media that “we hope that after six rounds of dialogue we will be able to draft an amended version of the NGO law that will satisfy civil society organisations in Egypt and abroad.”
“We want a law that protects civil society organisations and at the same time helps the administrative authority — the Ministry of Social Solidarity — regulate their activity in a way that serves the national interest.”
Wali said President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s call during the World Youth Forum on 5 November that the existing 89-article NGO law (70/2017) be amended was made in the belief NGOs play an important role in developing society.
“The government of Egypt views NGOs as partners in development initiatives and as a watchdog on the government’s performance,” said Wali.
She argued, however, that “not every NGO is doing a great job.”
“There are a handful that try to politicise the field for narrow-ended goals.”
Wali hopes the amended law will protect civil society from malicious NGOs without restricting the performance of NGOs in general.
Talaat Abdel-Qawi, head of the General Union of NGOs, told the media that “President Al-Sisi’s initiative came after many NGO activists complained that the existing law is restrictive and tarnished Egypt’s image in foreign circles.”
“We also complained that the implementation of the current law had proved so difficult that the government has so far been unable to issue any executive regulations,” said Abdel-Qawi.
Some key US Congress members, particularly the late senator John McCain and current senator Lindsey Graham, slammed the law as “draconian” for imposing heavy restrictions and effectively banning the work of NGOs.
They urged that the law be brought into line with international norms.
US Congress members also threatened to withhold a portion of US assistance to Egypt to protest against the current NGO law.
Abdel-Qawi told reporters the six rounds of national dialogue had revealed a “semi-consensus” over the need to amend at least 15 articles of the existing NGO law, the majority of them related to the imposition of penalties and the authority mandated to monitor NGO activities.
“The national dialogue was held in a democratic atmosphere and all the proposals recommended were very useful,” said Abdel-Qawi. “
‘’There may be minor disagreements on some articles but there is a consensus the law’s section on penalties must be radically changed.”
“The current law is the result of a sceptical view of NGOs. It imposes prison and custodial sentences while the amendments adopt a more conciliatory approach.”
Under the current law foreign NGOs have to pay up to LE300,000 to begin working in Egypt and are obliged to renew their permits on a regular basis.
Violators can face up to five years in jail and fines of LE1 million.
Abdel-Qawi said a large majority of participants in the national dialogue agreed the National Council for Regulating the Performance of NGOs in Egypt should be disbanded.
“The consensus was this bureaucratic council could intimidate NGOs from working in Egypt. It was recommended the Ministry of Social Solidarity should be the only authority mandated to regulate the performance of NGOs in Egypt, a return to the more liberal 2002 law.”
Mohamed Nour Farahat, a professor of constitutional law and a civil society activist, said “President Al-Sisi’s call to amend the NGO law was met with an immediate, positive reaction from civil society organisations.”
“We have always been for dialogue and hope the recommended amendments will help change the nature and philosophy of the NGO law,” said Farahat.
‘’Among the most significant recommendations is that NGOs be formed upon notification, as envisaged by Article 75 of the constitution, and that the dissolution of an NGO be by judicial order and not administrative decree.”
“We are all agreed that the existing law imposes heavy-handed security supervision on NGOs. This is not good because NGOs should, as Minister Wali indicated, be considered as partners, not as antagonists.”
“Participants in the dialogue also agreed the licensing fees for local NGOs be reduced to just LE1,000, a move that will help the NGO community flourish and reflect a new liberal and positive approach rather than the current restrictive one,” said Farahat.
“In return, and for the sake of national security, the NGO community agrees that the Ministry of Social Solidarity has the right not to license, or to freeze the activities of NGOs found guilty of engaging in political activities or activities harmful to security interests.”
State Information Service head Diaa Rashwan argues that “the national dialogue sessions helped crystalise a general consensus on amending the NGO law,” though “it remains important to hold a dialogue with parliament’s Social Solidarity Committee, and MPs in general, since they are the ones who will decide whether these amendments are passed or not.”
It will be up to the Ministry of Social Solidarity, says Wali, to submit an amended version of the NGO law, together with a report outlining the reasons behind the new amendments, to the cabinet and parliament.
“This report should be approved by cabinet before it is referred to parliament and we have high hopes MPs will vote in favour of the new amendments,” said Wali.
Abdel-Qawi revealed dialogue participants have also recommended that an independent section on the voluntary sector be added to the new law.
“We want to spread a culture of volunteering in Egypt, especially among school and university graduates,” said Abdel-Qawi.
Participants also recommended that the new law stipulate that “a quality control authority” be created to take charge of evaluating the performance of NGOs and issuing a code of ethics they should all observe.
Abdel-Qawi also said civil society activists urged that the new law allow NGOs to set up income-generating projects and receive donations.
Participants also recommended the licensing fees of foreign NGOs be reduced from LE300,000 to LE100,000.
“NGOs should receive approval on foreign funding applications within 30 days. If there is no response within this period approval should be deemed granted,” said Abdel-Qawi.
“Supervision of such funds should be exercised solely by the Ministry of Social Solidarity — instead of the current National Council. And in the event of funding being rejected, NGOs should be able to appeal the decision before the Administrative Court.”
According to Abdel-Qawi, the dialogue failed to reach a consensus on a small number of points.
“These mostly concerned NGOs’ bank accounts, the ceiling of donations, licensing documents, and whether more than one NGO can work out of the same office,” said Abdel-Qawi. * A version of this article appears in print in the 24 January, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Radical change to NGO law