The clash between the state and civil society is poised to escalate after an investigation was announced into several organizations and institutions working in human rights, anti-torture, economic and social rights, and women’s rights.
Mindful of the Public Prosecution’s gag order on the proceedings of the investigation, I will not address any specific case here, but instead offer general observations on the issue of civic organizations, their funding, and social role.
First, the investigation sparked widespread global responses, with international organizations and foreign embassies swiftly condemning the investigation into these groups and their directors. But we shouldn’t let this cloud our judgment or raise our suspicions of civil society.
We should instead approach the issue from a purely domestic perspective, considering only the public interest regardless of the stance of the international community.
Second, from this domestic perspective, there’s no doubt that Egypt needs an active, effective civil society. In fact, the overwhelming majority of civic associations assist the state in promoting economic and social development, providing jobs and incomes to the poorest families, and raising the standard of living in areas deprived of public services.
As for organizations advocating for human rights and the rights of women, the disabled, the imprisoned, and more, the country needs them as well. These groups ensure popular oversight of the executive authority, protect citizens’ legal and constitutional rights, and give voice to the demands of society’s most vulnerable and neediest groups.
Third, regardless of any legal or procedural irregularities on the part of some civil society groups, the state must shoulder some responsibility as well as long as it clings to a pointless system for regulating civic associations, which restricts their activities, opens the door to corruption in their establishment and regulation, and spurs those wishing to engage in peaceful civic action to search for legal alternatives.
I’m not referring here to any specific organization, but the overall legal framework for civic activity. For more than 30 years, we’ve been saying we need to amend the NGO law. Dozens of laws have been drafted in every era, hundreds of workshops, conferences, and seminars organized to discuss these alternatives, and meetings held with ministers of social solidarity and before them ministers of social affairs. And none of this has yielded any progress.
We continue to live under a law that does not truly seek to foster, support, and regulate civil society. Its real goal is to curtail and monitor it, and drag civic organizations into such a deep morass of documentation, record-keeping, and bureaucracy that they despair and abandon their efforts, or else seek out other legal frameworks under which to carry out their activities.
So what’s the solution?
The only exit from this situation is a new NGO law that supports and fosters civil society while also considering national security needs and the state’s regulatory right.
The law should allow civic associations to be easily founded, reduce the bureaucratic red tape involved in their management and protect them from interference and corruption by civil servants. It should give them the freedom necessary to offer their services to citizens while ensuring regulation by the executive.
The law should also specify the purposes and activities for which foreign funding is prohibited and require associations that receive support or funding from abroad to notify the competent authorities and declare the purpose of the funding and how it is spent.
The law should give the state the right to object on specific grounds and for a defined duration. And then anyone who contravenes these rules should be liable to punishment under the law.
And instead of drowning civic organizations in an ocean of documentation and red tape, the law should spur associations to improve their professional and administrative capacities, and to direct their resources to the causes they defend and the services they provide.
This can only be accomplished with a fair law that fosters and supports civil society while also providing for necessary oversight. And the good news is that such a law is consistent with Article 75 of the constitution on the establishment, regulation, and protection of civic associations.
The current situation of lethal red tape, restrictions on civic activity, and prosecutions of those who seek out alternative ways to defend and serve citizens’ rights will only lead to more political resentment and economic decline. We must all work for a new, equitable legal framework to govern civil society.
The writer holds a PhD in financial law from the London School of Economics. He is former deputy prime minister, former chairman of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority and former chairman of the General Authority for Investment.
This article was published in Arabic in El-Shorouq newspaper on Monday, 28 March.