In a fiery Monday afternoon session, the Islamist-led Shura Council (the upper house of Egypt's parliament, currently endowed with legislative powers) approved in principle a new law aimed at regulating the operations of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
Ahmed Fahmi, Shura Council chairman and leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), said that "after being approved in principle, the new NGO law will now be referred back to the Shura Council's human resources committee for article-by-article review and discussion."
Mahmoud Abdel-Azim, committee chairman and leading member of the ultra-conservative Salafist Nour Party, argued that the new law would facilitate the formation of NGOs and aid the role that they play in social development. The new law, he said, would give citizens the right to establish NGOs "by merely notifying" the government and without obliging them to follow the procedures required by the earlier 2002 law.
"If requests for new NGOs are rejected, activists can appeal the rejection before the administrative courts; this is another progressive step," said Abdel-Azim. He stressed that the law would be subject to lengthy debate by the council's human resources committee, adding that MPs would "do their best" to take the opinions of civil society organisations into account.
For their part, MPs from the council's Islamist majority teamed up to give the green light to the new NGO draft law, while seizing the opportunity to criticise the US and EU "for voicing concern about certain articles of the draft law, especially the one that calls for a 'coordination committee' tasked with licensing NGOs," said Abdel-Azim.
A national security issue
FJP spokesman Essam El-Erian, for his part, said the coordination committee was "necessary to stem the tide of foreign NGOs – or foreign-funded NGOs – that aim to infiltrate Egypt's national security."
According to El-Erian, foreign funding of NGOs operating in Egypt had reached $150 million over the last two years. "All this money has been earmarked with the objective of penetrating the country's national security," El-Erian stated.
He went on to ask MPs to review a recent ruling by Cairo's Criminal Court, which sentenced several foreign NGO workers to prison terms. "The details of this ruling are an adequate response to all those who ask to open the door to the foreign funding of NGOs without restriction," said El-Erian.
He added: "We say yes to the local funding of NGOs, but we reject foreign funding unless it is approved by a coordination committee tasked with overseeing this funding."
El-Erian went on to argue that "foreign funding of NGOs has always been politically motivated; no one pays out money like this out of the kindness of their hearts." He added: "Let me send a message to European and American citizens: we are keen to see your donations to private NGOs for development purposes, but not to play in Egypt's national security."
El-Erian also asserted that the foreign funding of NGOs aimed to polarise the nation into two warring camps. "Some Europeans and Americans give money to certain factions [in Egypt] at the expense of others, and this cannot be accepted," he said.
Representatives of other Islamist political parties also called for putting the foreign funding of NGOs under strict supervision. Osama Fikry, a representative of the ultra-conservative Salafist Nour Party, declared: "The Shura Council will never allow any organisation to exploit the foreign funding of NGOs to meddle with the internal affairs of Egypt."
According to Fikri, "the draft NGO law is in line with Islamic Law, and for this reason we will not accept any amendment of the legislation," which was initially tabled by President Mohamed Morsi.
Charges of 'promoting immorality'
Adel Afifi, for his part, a representative of the Salafist Asala Party, said: "The new NGO draft law will close the door to Europeans and Americans who want to spread immorality in Egyptian society." Afifi went on to argue that "NGOs that aim to play in politics or that want to promote liberal Western values – such as the emancipation of women and gay marriage – will be strictly forbidden from operating in Egypt."
Afifi asked MPs not to pay any heed to objections raised by the US or EU. "I don't care about what they say about the new NGO law; I only care about Egyptian national security." According to Afifi, the coordination committee will be formed to ensure that the foreign funding of NGOs – along with NGOs that act as subsidiaries of foreign organisations – is strictly supervised.
The Building and Development Party, the political arm of Egypt's Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya group, also joined the fray on Monday, arguing that "the draft law is the first of several laws aimed at restoring the sovereignty and independence of the Egyptian decision-making process." He added: "We know the Europeans and Americans are waging a misinformation campaign against the draft law, but we only care about Egypt's national security."
Liberal support for NGO law
Many liberal-minded MPs, however, also voiced support for the draft law.
Abdel-Moneim El-Tunsi, representative of the secular Ghad El-Thawra Party, said that "the new NGO draft law says goodbye to supervision by the state security apparatus over civil society; Egyptians will be free to establish NGOs."
Nagi El-Shehabi, chairman of the centrist Generation Party, declared: "Europe and the US want to spread destructive chaos in Egypt. We tell them that we will never allow NGOs funded by the CIA to operate in Egypt."
El-Shehabi went on to assert that "some NGOs operate under the cover of 'social development,' but in fact they obtain foreign funding with a view to spying on Egypt." El-Shehabi also said that "foreign funding of NGOs is part of the long-term US and European war against Islam." He added: "They want to Westernise our society and obliterate Islam, and the easiest way to achieve this is to fund local NGOs aimed at promoting immorality and spying on our internal affairs."
Mona Makram Ebeid, an appointed Coptic MP and political science professor, was the only deputy to attack the 'coordination committee' called for by the law. The committee, she contended, "represents a major obstacle before a flourishing civil society in Egypt."