In a major boost to non-governmental organisations, investigating judge Ali Mokhtar ruled on 5 December to lift asset freezes and travel bans on the staff of 20 NGOs which were involved in what was called case 173/2011, commonly known as “the case of foreign funding of civil society.”
Mokhtar was entrusted by the Court of Appeals to investigate the report by a fact-finding committee formed in 2011 to look into the foreign funding of civil society groups.
Mokhtar said in a statement on 5 December that he started the investigation “to complement the efforts of the previous investigating judges about 10 months ago, and that the legal position of a number of the organisations under investigation was determined. So, we had to settle it without delay until the completion of investigations into the remaining facts.
“The investigations into 20 of the organisations, entities, and societies in the case have been concluded,” Mokhtar said, adding that «due to the different legal positions and the different legal nature and evidence, we decided to issue an order not to pursue a criminal case for six of the organisations.”
Mokhtar also issued an order not to move forward with a criminal case for 14 of the NGOs due to insufficient evidence.
The judge consequently decided to lift the travel bans and asset freezes on the staff of the 20 organisations.
“We believe that civil society is part of the engine of sustainable development and is indispensable… in supporting solidarity and social peace, which do not come about without the active and effective role of civil society, as long as this role is played within the correct legal framework and in accordance with the legal controls set by the legislator,” Mokhtar said.
The issue of human rights featured prominently in talks between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday. President Al-Sisi said in his talks with President Macron that he reviewed the efforts being exerted by Egypt to advance the agenda of human rights.
“We promote the agenda of human rights for all citizens without discrimination and in terms of reinforcing the concept of citizenship, modernising religious discourse, and enforcing the rule of law,” said Al-Sisi, pointing out that the executive bylaws of the NGOs law was released last week to help civil society organisations carry out their activities and support their organisational and financial capacities. “Besides, we, jointly with civil society, are currently preparing the first national strategy on human rights in Egypt,” Al-Sisi added.
Macron said that “when we discuss human rights in Egypt we should consider the challenges Egypt is currently facing. Egypt is still facing terrorism threats, not to mention other challenges such as social problems and so we should all support Egypt and President Al-Sisi in achieving stability. Each country should have its own policies concerning human rights without facing conditions or penalties,” Macron said.
President Al-Sisi indicated that a total of 55,000 licensed NGOs are currently doing business in Egypt. “I wonder how many of these have complained of facing problems, but all I can say is that these NGOs are an integral part of the civil society in Egypt… they are doing a very good job and are really partners with the government,” Al-Sisi said.
The prominence of human rights issues on the agenda of the Sisi-Macron discussions in Paris came after the arrest last month of three officials affiliated with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) which caused concern in European and American political circles. Though the three EIPR staff were released on 3 December on bail, the issue has received widespread coverage in Western media.
EIPR announced on 2 December that it presented an official letter to the Social Solidarity Ministry about the steps taken to register itself in line with the NGO law and to change its status from a regular company to a non-profit organisation.
The EIPR said it would submit all papers and documents necessary to its business in Egypt and in line with the rules stipulated by the NGOs law.
Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ahmed Hafez said EIPR is registered as a company and performs its activities in violation of the provisions of NGO Law 149/2019. He noted that companies working in any field in Egypt must do so in accordance with the law or else be held accountable.
On 26 November, the Egyptian government ratified, with immediate effect, the executive bylaws of the NGO law that organises and regulates the work of local and foreign NGOs in the country. Cabinet Spokesman Nader Saad said “the law and its bylaws were the product of a community dialogue discussion that was launched by the government with various stakeholders about the best practices in this field in a number of countries, with the participation of local and foreign NGOs, jurists, and the National Council for Human Rights.
“Ratifying the new bylaws is considered the start of implementing the law in Egypt,” said Saad in a statement, adding that both the law and its bylaws are considered a paradigm shift in the history of civil society in the country.
“The law and its bylaws reflect the faith of the state in the vital role of NGOs in achieving development in different fields through building a strong and sustainable partnership between the state and civil society in a way that allows them to achieve their goals in a framework of transparency and respect of human rights values,” he added.
Saad stated the new law reflects the commitment of the state to support society by guaranteeing the right to form NGOs, boost their organisational and financial capabilities, and allow them to work in different fields, in addition to providing them with merits and exemptions.
“Citizens are granted the right to form NGOs upon notification, while ensuring that they freely exercise their activities, and that administrative bodies are not allowed to interfere in their affairs, dissolve them, or dissolve their board of directors without a court ruling,” Saad said.
The law also reflects how the Egyptian state welcomes the work of foreign NGOs in Egypt, he added.
“Concerning the work of foreign NGOs in Egypt, the bylaws explained in detail the procedural framework that foreign NGOs must follow in order to have a permit to operate in the country,” he said.
Concerning the finances of NGOs, Saad stated that the new law facilitated the financial transactions of NGOs, allowing them to receive cash and funds from inside and outside of Egypt from persons or legal entities, as well as foreign NGOs unauthorised to work in the country.
The spokesman added that the new law does not include any penalties that involve the incarceration of NGO workers, with fines being imposed in case of violations.
According to Saad, in order for NGOs currently working in Egypt to continue to operate, including foreign NGOs, without disruption, the new law gives all NGOs an opportunity to resolve their legal situation within a year of implementing the bylaws by going through simple procedures.
Egypt’s parliament passed an amended NGOs law in July 2019 after the existing version of the law was criticised for imposing steep restrictions on the work of tens of thousands of NGOs in the country.
Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli formed a committee to oversee the amendment of the original NGO law in 2018 after President Al-Sisi asked for revisions to be made.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.