MPs this week defended the new NGO law, passed by parliament on 15 July, following criticisms levelled by the London-based Amnesty International.
In a statement on 16 July, Amnesty International said “the new NGO law maintains some of the most draconian provisions of the 2017 law and includes only a handful of token cosmetic changes to address human rights concerns.”
In response, Mohamed Abu Hamed, deputy head of parliament’s Social Solidarity Committee, pointed out that the new law reflects a five-month national dialogue in which representatives of the vast majority of local civil society organisations and human rights groups participated.
“Most dialogue participants focused on two demands: eliminating custodial sentences for NGO employees, and simplifying procedures for licensing and setting up NGOs.
“The law was drafted to meet these two demands. These are radical changes, not cosmetic ones as Amnesty International claims,” said Abu Hamed.
“Tellingly, the Amnesty statement failed to specify what draconian provisions the new law maintains.”
In its statement on 16 July, issued hours after the law was passed by parliament, Amnesty said it “continues to grant the Egyptian authorities sweeping powers to dissolve independent human rights groups and criminalises legitimate activities of NGOs”.
Abu Hamed insists, however, that the new law strips the government of significant powers.
“The law cancelled the 2017 article which placed foreign NGOs under the supervision of a national regulatory commission affiliated to the cabinet. Instead, at the request of most NGOs participating in the dialogue, foreign NGOs will be placed under the supervision of a unit affiliated with the Ministry of Social Solidarity.
“Most activists prefer Social Solidarity Ministry supervision since it is the department most familiar with NGO activities and its officials usually hold liberal views,” said Abu Hamed.
The new law also permits an NGO to be dissolved only upon a judicial ruling.
“This is a major departure from the previous law which granted the administrative authorities sweeping powers in this respect,” said Abu Hamed.
“The new law was also drafted in line with Article 75 of the constitution which states that citizens have the right to form NGOs and have them licensed upon notification.
“It is clear that Amnesty did not give itself enough time to read the law carefully, or does not want to read it objectively, failings that render its statement on the law politicised and baseless,” concludes Abu Hamed.
Hafez Abu Seada, head of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), told Al-Hayat TV channel on 16 July that the new law differs significantly from its 2017 predecessor.
“There was a national dialogue during which representatives of civil society presented various proposals for changes. When EOHR saw the final draft, the text presented to parliament, it was clear the government had adopted a middle course between the various suggestions. The most important thing is that the law has been amended in a way that meets the core demands of NGOs. It eliminates freedom-restricting articles, eliminates the National Regulatory Commission and halts the dissolving or suspension of NGOs except upon judicial orders.”
According to Abu Seada, the problem with Western organisations like London-based Amnesty International and New York-based Human Rights Watch is that they want an NGO law without any state supervision.
“This reflects an anarchist agenda which could turn NGOs into a state within a state. What local organisations want is different. They do not want to face the threat of detention as they go about their business. They want licensing procedures to be easier, and to receive foreign donations under government supervision.”
Mohamed Al-Ghoul, deputy chairman of parliament’s Human Rights Committee, says Amnesty’s report on the new NGO law was based on false information provided by leftist and liberal activists who want to access foreign money without any kind of supervision.
“The weirdest thing about Amnesty’s statement is that it says the new law contradicts Egypt’s constitution. Yet the law was redrafted precisely to conform with the 2014 constitution. Thus, it eliminated custodial sentences and ensured NGOs are licensed upon notification, without any intervention from administrative authorities.”
Claims that the new law continues to ban NGOs from receiving funding or raising funds domestically and abroad are patently false, says Al-Ghoul. The new law allows NGOs to receive domestic and foreign funds, and obliges the Ministry of Social Solidarity to respond to any funding request within 60 days. In the absence of a response, any request will be deemed approved.
A false assumption appears to be made that the ministry will turn away foreign funding that meets international standards of transparency, argues Al-Ghoul.
Amnesty’s claims that the law gives the authorities the power to dissolve NGOs and prosecute staff based on vague allegations are also misguided, according to Al-Ghoul.
“The law allows the minister of social solidarity to dissolve NGOs and prosecute staff only following a final judicial order,” says Al-Ghoul. “The government will no longer have a free hand. It is the courts that have the final say in this respect.”
While Article 46 allows the minister to temporarily suspend the activities of NGOs for up to a year, Article 50 states that in the case of such a suspension the relevant court must issue a ruling as quickly as possible.
MP Mustafa Bakri insists the new law achieves 90 per cent of the demands of NGOs and says most local NGOs welcomed it.
“The problem is with a handful of activists mainly interested in obtaining foreign money without any kind of supervision. Some of them use the money to line their own pockets, others send mendacious reports to foreign circles,” said Bakri.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Defending the NGO law