I’d imagined that in light of Egypt’s economic conditions, the state would lift restrictions on civic associations in Egypt that help millions of citizens by offering assistance and services the state cannot provide
Faced with recent electricity price hikes, the new VAT, the floating of the pound, higher energy prices, shortages in sugar, rice, and medicines, and predictions of more price increases in the future, the logical thing for the state to do is to encourage NGOs to play a bigger role in alleviating the daily hardships faced by citizens.
Instead, everyone—including the government—was stunned when parliamentarians unveiled a draft NGO law out of the blue. The House then passed the bill with lightening speed and adopted it on November 29th.
All this happened while the Ministry of Social Solidarity was busy discussing a different bill with civil society organisations.
So rather than supporting associations and removing barriers to their work, the new law imposes unprecedented restrictions, threatening to freeze the activities of numerous NGOs and bring civic action to a standstill, and raising questions about its future.
Since I expressed my detailed objections to the law last week, I won’t repeat them here. I will reiterate, however, that for the first time, this law requires prior state approval for funds and donations raised from Egyptians, the same as foreign funding. It also makes the members of association boards subject to the illicit gains law. Issued in the 1960s to protect state assets from corruption, it has nothing to do with civil society, which is based on volunteerism.
To justify the law, it’s been said that some associations receive funds from abroad and so constitute a threat to national security, while others adopt legal and social issues that can threaten political stability. The logic is apparently that it’s best to fence in all associations just in case, even those that receive no funding from abroad and do not work on rights or social issues.
But the only certain outcome of such a move is that all civic activity will be curtailed, which will jeopardize the operation of tens of thousands of associations working in medical and educational services, anti-illiteracy campaigns, support for small enterprises, orphan care, treatment for drug addicts, the distribution of necessary goods, the promotion of investment, and defraying burial expenses for poor families.
And all of this because the state fears a few dozen rights associations, despite the battery of laws, procedures, and penalties at its disposal, which already severely circumscribe civic action.
My question is therefore the following: If the purpose of the law is to preserve national security and stability, is that done by providing a balanced legal framework that allows adequate supervision over foreign funding to preserve the dictates of national security while preserving civic activity? Or is it better to undermine all of civil society heedless of the serious ramifications for millions of poor and needy Egyptians who benefit from its services?
Remember that the state, in the midst of current economic difficulties, seeks to build a social safety net and increase pensions and insurance from the extremely constrained state budget. How, then, can it conceivably sweep away the parallel, more effective safety net offered by civil society and its autonomous resources? Not only do these resources not drain state coffers, they are directed to peripheral and informal areas where the state is absent, meeting a need the government cannot. They offer opportunities to those without alternatives and fill a serious gap that often represents the difference between a dignified life and a slow death.
There is still, however, a chance to fix this grievous error, if the president elects to use his constitutional authority to send the law back to the House for reconsideration and initiate a genuine societal dialogue on it.
There is, in all cases, a need for an unequivocal stance not only from political parties and rights associations, but from everyone who cares about the future of civil society in Egypt and the role it plays and from those who benefit from and work with it.
Remaining silent about the law is what threatens the state and its security and stability.
*The writer holds a PhD in financial law from the London School of Economics. He is former deputy prime minister, former chairman of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority and former chairman of the General Authority for Investment.
A version of this article was published in Arabic in El-Shorouq newspaper on Monday, 28 November.