What happened to the new associations’ law approved by the House of Representatives on November 29 and sent to the president for ratification?
Why haven’t we heard a word about it the last three weeks? I suspect this isn’t due solely to plodding administrative procedure.
I hope it means the president may use his constitutional power to send the law back to parliament for reconsideration, which could offer the chance to save the country from this dreadful law.
The law is bad not only because of its provisions restricting civil society, as I and many others have already observed on previous occasions, but also because of the conditions of its adoption, which indicate a dysfunctional decision- making and legislative process.
The first sign of this dysfunction is that the true purpose of the law was not disclosed.
While its defenders in and out of parliament said its aim was to protect national security and tighten oversight on foreign funding, the truth is that laws and decrees issued over the last three years have already shut this door fully barring approval from the Ministry of Social Solidarity and security bodies.
In fact, Law 128/2014 made the receipt of any funds or support from foreign bodies without prior approval a crime punishable by up to life imprisonment for regular citizens and death for civil servants.
The aim of the NGO law, then, is not to safeguard the country from foreign interference, but to bring civil society—including the thousands of associations that receive no foreign funds and have no links with any foreign body—under full state control, threaten their staff, and ensure that they heed state directives.
This goes against the very nature and goals of civic action.
The same ambiguity surrounded the drafting of the law. Officially, 180 parliamentarians submitted the bill, which in itself is neither strange nor improper, but part of their job as legislators.
It is strange, however, for the government, including the Ministry of Social Solidarity, to be ignored and excluded from a discussion of the new law when for months the ministry has been preparing and debating a more balanced NGO law.
This suggests that the bill was introduced through the House in such abrupt fashion to bury the dialogue underway between the ministry and civil society and prevent a fairer law from seeing the light.
It also suggests there are bodies within the state capable of sidelining the government and pushing through their own legislative agenda.
Finally, the dysfunction in decision making was made apparent by the fact that the negative economic and social impact of the new law was disregarded, despite the economic crisis and hardships facing citizens, from unemployment to price hikes to deteriorating public services.
Tellingly, in the days after the law was announced, it was the subject of criticism and warnings from numerous well-established organizations and NGOs in good standing with the state and with considerable influence in various charitable and humanitarian fields.
These groups expressed their displeasure with the unprecedented restrictions imposed by the law, the utter disregard for their economic and social repercussions, and the danger they posed to the country’s stability.
The president thus has ample grounds to use his constitutional authority to return the law to parliament for further debate and revision of its most glaring flaws.
For its part, the House should not introduce mere cosmetic changes, tinkering with the law here and there, but address its major failings. It should revise the law to allow civic associations to raise funds from Egyptians without restriction or impediment and to facilitate the operation of associations.
And while the receipt of foreign funding should be regulated, it should be within a framework with transparent procedures and conditions with a concrete timetable.
The House should abandon the idea of supreme councils that trespass on the authority of the Ministry of Social Solidarity, and reduce administrative restrictions that deny society the services of civic bodies.
Finally, custodial sentences for administrative infractions must be removed from the law.
A genuine, diligent review of the law is not a reflection of state weakness or hesitation, but its willingness to consider and heed society’s economic, social, and legal interests.
This is the sole exit from the predicament caused by those bodies that pushed this law without consultation or reflection. Driven only by their dread of any bottom-up social activity, they ignored the support and assistance civil society provides to broad swathes of the Egyptian public who have nothing to do with any foreign state or its official agencies.
Will we take this opportunity and correct this gratuitous error?
*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.
A version of this article was published in Arabic in El-Shorouq newspaper on Monday, 19 December.