New NGO draft law strikes fear in Egyptian civil society

Ayat Al Tawy , Friday 24 May 2013

Rights campaigners say NGOs in Egypt – both local and foreign – are destined to draconian constraints if new Muslim Brotherhood-drafted legislation is passed

Security forces raid a US funded NGO offices in 2011 (Photo AP)

Following Egypt's January 2011 revolution, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) had hoped for greater autonomy and freedom of association. These hopes, however, have been largely dashed by a new daft law set to be passed imminently by Egypt's Shura Council, the upper house of parliament that currently holds legislative powers.

The proposed legislation – which, drafted by the Islamist-led council's human development committee, is aimed at regulating the activities of NGOs operating in Egypt – is perceived by many to be more repressive than its Mubarak-era predecessor: Law 84 of 2002.

Activists say the draft law will allow undue state interference in the internal governance of Egyptian civil society and create new layers of bureaucracy by obliging NGOs to frequently report to various state bodies.

According to Hafez Abu-Saeda, head of the Cairo-based Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, "discretionary power" constitutes the most problematic aspect of the law.

"The bill gives administrative, rather than judicial, bodies the right to say what is legal and what is not," Abu-Saeda told Ahram Online.

As it currently stands, the bill will allow Egypt's social solidarity ministry to scrutinise every decision issued by the boards of civil society organisations.

What's more, the draft law stipulates that membership in or cooperation with international associations must be approved by the Egyptian authorities.

"They would even recquire NGOs to keep visitor logs – providing details about when meetings are held, the topics discussed and visitors' identities – to which they would have access," said Abu-Saeda.

'Just a manoeuvre'

According to Article 51 of Egypt's post-revolution constitution, NGOs can only be legally established by "notifying" the authorities.

According to the draft legislation, however, civil society groups will not be allowed to operate until they obtain a 'certificate of registration' from the social solidarity ministry. Critics point out that this ministry certificate would serve as a de facto license rather than a 'notification' per se.

"It's just a manoeuvre," said Abu-Saeda. "If it's an actual notification as claimed, organisations should be able to legally operate the very next day."

The financial restrictions spelt out in the proposed legislation, meanwhile, are no less severe than the organisational ones, say critics.

For example, the law calls for a bimonthly administrative and financial inspection of civil society groups, a procedure Abu-Saeda believes would open the door to corruption and bribe-taking.

NGOs in Egypt normally submit an annual report to the government detailing all their financial data and resources, which, Abu-Saeda says, allows such groups to be monitored.

According to Heba Morayef, the Egypt director for Human Rights Watch (HRW), the government has the right to "ask NGOs to make their financing public so as to ensure there is no corruption, prosecute staff members for crimes committed and impose fines for failing to comply with the law."

However, she stressed, "This doesn't mean they should monitor what NGOs do every day, or how they govern themselves internally."

Raising further alarm, Egypt's State Security apparatus will have a seat in a new interagency committee tasked with scrutinising every aspect of the projects carried out by civil society groups, giving it direct influence over the authorisation process and funding.

"How can security agencies be involved in monitoring the work of civil society, which itself seeks to observe and expose violations and abuses committed by those same security agencies?" asked Mohamed Zaree, Egypt programme director at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

At the first meeting of its kind, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi met earlier this week with a delegation from Egypt's General Federation of NGOs – a move apparently aimed at easing mounting concerns among Egypt's civil society community.

Funding crisis?

Rights campaigners fear that what they see as "ill-defined principles" within the draft law could be arbitrarily interpreted to clamp down on projects that challenge the practices of Egypt's Islamist-led government.

According to Morayef, the government committee will have absolute power to approve or reject any foreign or domestic funding for local NGOs.

Critics argue that restrictions or bans on foreign funding will put the operation of Egypt-based human rights groups – which primarily rely on foreign donors – at risk. The lion's share of domestic funding is channelled into local development projects and charity groups, with domestic donors less likely to support potentially controversial projects related to rights.

"This way, groups working on women's rights and freedom of practice, or those who monitor elections or fight torture, will be shut out," said Morayef.

With the law failing to clearly define NGOs' right to obtain funds, Morayef fears the introduction of "loose concepts" would allow Egypt's judiciary to simply rubberstamp the rejection of funds – even if made arbitrarily – by the government.

Khaled Sultan, head of the solidarity ministry's General Department of Organisations, responsible for the issuance and renewal of NGO authorisations, says that Egypt's current economic malaise does not allow bans on foreign funding as claimed.

He asserts that the ministry seeks to "legalise funding so as to ensure that there is no violation of state sovereignty and that national security is not endangered."

Under Mubarak, 'security concerns' had often been cited as the main reason vetoing funds and banning rights groups.

Sultan conceded, however, that – even under the much-reviled 2002 law – civil society groups were seldom banned on grounds of national security.

Rights campaigners may demand the revival of a draft NGO law tabled in 2012 by parliament's Muslim Brotherhood-led lower house if the government does not bow to pressure to scrap the new NGO bill. The subsequent dissolution of the lower house by order of Egypt's then-ruling Supreme Military Council put paid to the 2012 draft, which had received a warm reception from rights groups at the time and is now seen as much less restrictive than the law currently under consideration.

Their concerns are compounded by Egypt's new Islamist-tinged constitution, efforts by President Morsi's Islamist regime to push for a fast-track law aimed at "cleansing the judiciary" of Mubarak-era jurists, and what they see as a clampdown on dissent.

Some good points

According to Morayef, the "only big achievement" she sees in the bill is the cancellation of an article that had defined NGOs' finances as 'public funds,' which critics describe as the 'nationalisation' of civil society.

For Abu-Saeda, another positive aspect of the draft law is what he called "the inclusivity of the definition of non-governmental groups." The proposed law, he explained, "incorporates all forms of peaceful assemblies, coalitions and networks."

He went on to say that the draft legislation would render Egypt's 'Rebel Campaign' – an anti-Morsi petition drive – legal, for example.

Despite having been praised for abolishing custodial punishments – unlike the law's Mubarak-era counterpart – civil society groups would still risk fines of up to LE100,000 (roughly $14,200) for a range of ostensible violations.

These include obtaining funds' illegally,' as well as the allocation of funds for purposes not specified by the charter of the NGO in question, which critics deem an infringement of the freedom of association.

According to international agreements, civil society groups face much lighter penalties for such violations, like the loss of some legal benefits such as tax exemptions.

Foreign organisations

Local groups are not the only ones under threat, say the draft law's detractors. The law, which has been harshly condemned by Washington and the UN, calls for restrictions no less tight on foreign organisations as well.

Under Mubarak, the government used to leave international groups in some kind of grey area for years by neither approving their registration within the specified 60-day period, nor banning them from operating.

The new law portends much of the same, calling for a renewal of foreign organisations' licenses every five years.

"Required registration documents are vaguely defined [in the bill] and are subject to updates every three months," explained Zaree. "This will put their work at risk of being intentionally hindered by bureaucracy, if not rejected outright."

Setting up a new foreign NGO under an international agreement or a new office for a pre-existing NGO in another governorate would also be closely scrutinised by the government's monitoring committee.

The law also allows non-members – individual or associations – to access all official documents of organisations upon official request, which is seen as another potential threat to both confidentiality and freedom of association.

Seventy-three foreign organisations operate in Egypt out of an estimated total of 40,000 NGOs.

For his part, Taher Abdel-Mohsen, deputy chairman of the Shura Council's legislative and constitutional affairs committee and a leading Brotherhood official, says the barrage of criticism of the draft law is "premature."

"The bill has yet to take shape," he said. "National dialogue with all concerned entities is underway so as to reach the broadest possible consensus."

Abdel-Mohsen, however, concedes that fears about the influential role given to security bodies by the law are "well-founded," yet asserts that other restrictions are intended to "protect" the state.

NGOs had long been plagued by tight constraints under ousted president Hosni Mubarak – some of which have remained in place after his fall from power.

Under interim military rule, which followed the outbreak of the January 2011 revolution, authorities conducted large-scale raids on a number of NGOs – both local and foreign – including the US-based Freedom House.

Forty-three staffers from pro-democracy groups, including 19 Americans, were referred to trial in December 2011, on charges of illegally obtaining foreign funds and failing to register their operations with the government. The case sparked a crisis in relations between Cairo and Washington and threatened $1.3 billion in annual US military aid. A final verdict in the case is expected on 4 June.

Several international NGOs – including the International Bar Association, the International Centre for Transitional Justice and the International Commission of Jurists – had shown a willingness to work in post-revolution Egypt, but were later repelled by the crackdown campaign and generally repressive environment.

Government legislation

The absence of a government-drafted NGO law had raised eyebrows until one was finally introduced by Egypt's justice ministry in late April. The government's draft, however, ended up proving even more contentious than the one currently under consideration.

Like the Brotherhood-sponsored bill, the government-drafted legislation has been severely censured for taking its cue from the authoritarianism of the Mubarak regime.

"All the reservations that were amended in the Brotherhood's draft remain in the government's bill, along with many new ones," said Abu-Saeda.

Morayef echoed these sentiments, calling the government legislation "disastrous."

While the Brotherhood-proposed bill had imposed fines on violators of up to LE100,000, the government bill makes funding violations, for example, punishable by fines of up to LE5 million (roughly $714,000).

The draft law would also give the government wider influence over NGO funding and the authorisation process.

Nevertheless, the government draft law is not getting as much attention as its Brotherhood-proposed counterpart, which, critics fear, will ultimately be passed by the Islamist-dominated Shura Council.  

"We produced this draft law following several meetings with domestic and international organisations, including the UN, along with rights activists and critics of the earlier bill, in order to reach a broad consensus before sending it to the cabinet for approval," justice ministry spokesman Ahmed Sallam told Ahram Online.

Last week, a final version of the government's draft law was sent to the cabinet for review before being submitted to lawmakers.

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