They also asked the government to make sure that foreign funding does not go to funding political activities such as organising street demonstrations.
Speaker of the Senate Abdel-Wahab Abdel-Razeq said the Senate’s debate on NGOs — including the statement delivered by Minister of Social Solidarity Nevine El-Qabbaj and comments made by senators — will be referred to the chamber’s Human Rights and Social Solidarity Committee to prepare a report on it in order to be discussed again in another plenary session.
For her part, El-Qabbaj said the ministry exerts periodical supervision on the performance of all NGOs operating in Egypt.
“This includes strict oversight of all foreign funds granted to NGOs,” said El-Qabbaj, indicating that “NGOs can obtain foreign financing only after getting the approval of three watchdog institutions — an internal auditing unit affiliated with the Ministry of Social Solidarity, the Central Auditing Agency, and the Administrative Control Authority.”
El-Qabbaj explained that in line with the NGOs law 149/2019, NGOs obtaining foreign funding should allow media outlets to publish how much funding they receive for the sake of fostering transparency.
“We also use a digital registry system to know who the recipients of this money are to ensure that the money is distributed equitably among all parties and to widen the scope of recipients of foreign funding,” she added.
According to the minister, NGOs can obtain funding only after they are licensed.
“I also want to note that these watchdog institutions go to great lengths to ensure that funding is not used in money-laundering schemes or to finance terrorist activities, and that it is only used in development activities,” said El-Qabbaj.
Furthermore, she revealed that the largest sum of money NGOs obtained was in 2021.
“They got EGP 2 billion, most of which was spent on health services due to the coronavirus pandemic,” she said.
The minister also clarified that the NGOs law does not impose any prison sentences on those who violate any of the articles of the law, particularly the articles regulating foreign funding.
“The NGOs law does not impose any freedom-restricting penalties in order not to negatively affect Egypt’s image or ranking on international freedom indexes.”
“The penalties in the NGOs law only include imposing financial fines, freezing banking accounts, suspending the board of directors, and disbanding the concerned NGO,” she explained.
She concluded by urging senators to develop “a positive view of NGOs” as they “offer big contributions to the state, particularly during times of crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic, and that they generously contribute to education and social protection programmes.”
The debate in the Senate on NGOs and the government’s supervision of their sources of funding on Saturday came upon the request of Senator Soha Said Abdel-Moneim.
Abdel-Moneim said that the NGOs law (149/2019) gave a lot of privileges and facilities to civil society organisations wishing to operate in Egypt.
“These facilities helped NGOs obtain EGP 2.2 billion from donor organisations between the first of January 2021 and the end of October 2021,” said Abdel-Moneim, adding that “during the same period, NGOs got EGP 4.9 billion in contributions from individual citizens.”
“They got this big amount of money in such a short period of time because Egyptian citizens and entities believe in principles of mutual social support,” she said, calling for “stricter control on money donated to NGOs to make sure that these funds are used in development and charity activities in a transparent way.”
“For example, we want to know how much money goes to salaries, administrative services, TV ads, and what is left at the end for spending on development activities,” said Abdel-Moneim, emphasising that “money donated should not go to line the pockets of some people at the expense of development activities in line with article 75 of the constitution.”
Furthermore, she asked that there be a public database on money donated to NGOs and how they are used and where they are used in geographical terms.
“We also want to know how much money is being spent by these NGOs on charity and how much on development activities and services,” said Abdel-Moneim, urging that “regional departments affiliated with the Ministry of Social Solidarity in different Egyptian governorates should exert greater coordination with NGOs to make sure that they optimally use their money to serve development purposes.”
In response, El-Qabbaj said “the ministry of social solidarity exercises supervision on TV ads urging citizens to donate money to NGOs, hospitals, and charity organisations.”
“We make sure that spending on these ads does not exceed 20 percent of the donations,” she assured, revealing that “Egypt’s international football player Mohamed Salah didn’t get any money in return for advertising against drugs.”
El-Qabbaj also noted that “the EGP 7.5 billion in donations accrued by NGOs in 2021 are not of great concern given that the state needs more substantial donations to help improve public services.”
Nabil Dibis — chairperson of the Senate’s Education Committee — said that “the status of NGOs in Egypt should be discussed as a matter of national security given that some of the foreign funding that some NGOs obtain goes on to serve foreign agendas.”
He added that from the beginning of the 25 January 2011 Revolution until President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi came to office, most of the foreign funding that was granted to local NGOs was spent on political purposes.
“The largest bulk of this huge funding was used to spend on street demonstrations or to fund the parliamentary campaigns of certain political parties or serve the political agendas of the donor countries,” said Dibis, demanding that “a member of the National Security Apparatus or the Administrative Control Authority join the Boards of Directors of any NGOs that obtain foreign funding to make sure that such finances are not used to serve political ends.”
Dibis also demanded that “70 percent of any foreign funds donated to NGOs go towards financing development projects in the fields of building electricity stations and potable water facilities in poor villages.”
“I also ask that foreign funding granted to NGOs be made public by media outlets for the sake of transparency.”
For his part, Senator Abdou Abu Aysha said he is not in favour of “demonising” NGOs that obtain foreign funding.
“All I ask is that there should be stricter control on local NGOs which obtain foreign funding to make sure that this money is not used in political activities and be limited only to development purposes,” said Abu Aysha.
Furthermore, Senator Mahmoud El-Qut accused NGOs of spending most of the money they obtain on non-development activities.
“They spend most of the money they receive on salaries and administrative affairs,” said El-Qut, adding that “as for NGOs which obtain foreign funding, we see that these exercise political activities and discuss critical national security issues in the form of holding conferences and workshops attended by diplomats from foreign embassies that donate money to these NGOs.”
“We ask that a representative from the Ministry of Social Solidarity attend these conferences and workshops to make sure they discuss charity and development affairs only and not political issues,” said El-Qut.
Phoebe Fawzi — the Senate’s second deputy speaker — said “most of the foreign funding granted to NGOs in the past used to go to serving political agendas or for achieving personal gain.”
“This should come to an end, and NGOs should direct all of these activities to national development areas,” she said, adding that “NGOs get billions of pounds in funding, and we should make sure that this money is allocated to improving the lives of citizens in different sectors, such as education, health, and food security.”
However, Bahaa El-Din Abu Shoqa — the Senate’s first deputy speaker — deplored that the articles of the current NGOs (149/2019) do not address the issue of foreign funding to NGOs in an adequate way.
“The law does not include any tough prison or physical penalties that target NGOs involved in obtaining foreign funding to exercise activities compromising national security, and that the law just imposes modest financial fines that mean nothing for NGOs with political agendas,” said Abu Shoqa.
Senator Mohamed Emara argued that “given 2022 was declared the year of civil work in Egypt, there should be greater control on money donated to NGOs.”
“In this respect, I propose that only six percent of the money be granted to NGOs go to spending on salaries and administrative costs, while the remaining money is allocated to implementing development projects.”