The US government last week suspended part of its annual economic aid to Egypt, citing the continued enforcement of the NGO law. The decision sparked angry reactions from government and media circles in Egypt, as well as from the general public.
This anger is justified: the decision constitutes unacceptable interference in Egypt’s internal affairs, especially when the current US administration seems uninterested in human rights or civil society, either in the US itself or elsewhere. Moreover, the decision blocks funding for development projects designed to support the neediest segments of the Egyptian society, a strange way to express concern for Egyptians and their rights.
But if foreign interference in domestic affairs is unacceptable, that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about Egyptian civil society and the NGO law lest we appear to be caving to foreign pressure. On the contrary, we must continue to seek solutions to our problems in the national and public interest. And from this perspective, we must admit that the current law governing civic associations in Egypt is a problem.
It’s a problem because it was issued without debate or consultation with any party, neither civil society itself nor experts nor even the Ministry of Social Solidarity, which regulates NGOs. In fact, this ministry had drafted a more balanced law following a dialogue with dozens of civic organizations and the General Federation of Civic Associations, but this effort was ignored in favor of a law that no one had seen. This is not to say that the ministry’s draft law was free of flaws, but the ministry should be commended for efforts it made to produce a balanced bill, which was unfortunately buried by the issuance of the law issued last November.
And the law is a problem because it places unprecedented restrictions on civil society activities, including infringing the constitutional right to establish civic associations by notification as it fails to limit the documents required to be submitted (Article 8), prohibits NGOs from engaging in activities that "fall within the remit of parties or trade unions and syndicates, are of a political nature, or harm national security or public order, morals, or health" (Article 13) thus using vague terms to define prohibited activities; refers applications for the receipt of foreign funding to a newly created agency (Article 72), thereby usurping the powers and prerogatives of the Ministry of Social Solidarity; considers the lack of a response to funding applications within 60 days an automatic rejection (Article 24); and prescribes up to five years in prison for anyone who collects funds locally—yes, locally—without prior approval (Article 87).
The law is also a problem because, on the grounds of monitoring organizations that use civil society as a cover for political activity, it has strangled thousands of charitable organizations around the country that provide health, educational, and other much needed services and support to those most in need in far-flung villages and informal areas. At a time when Egyptians are suffering from high prices, poor public services, rampant youth unemployment, and incitement to terrorism, the state has chosen to obstruct associations offering necessary social protection, legislating to impede these activities and deny the public civil society support.
Further the law is a problem because it is gradually driving international NGOs and global and regional research institutions to shutter their activities and move to other countries, which are happy to benefit from their resources and expertise and offer incentives to attract them. Officials ought to inquire about the number of such international institutions—economic, social, and cultural—that have already left Egypt, scaled down their activities, or are searching for a more propitious working environment.
And finally the law is a problem because although the parliament approved it on November 29, the president did not ratify it until May 24 and the implementing regulations are still nowhere to be seen. The deadline for the issuance of the regulations was July 24, but we have yet to see a draft or know who is preparing them. As a result, civil society in Egypt has been brought to a standstill for close to a year.
Patriotism demands not only that we reject foreign interference in our internal affairs or infringements of our sovereignty. It also dictates that we take the initiative and fix our problems ourselves, relying on our own abilities and determination to address and rectify this law, which should have never been issued. In this, our sole motivation should be the national interest, not pressures or threats from other parties.