Empowering civil society by law

Nermine Abdel Bary, Thursday 6 Jun 2013

Egyptian civil society has been marginalised over six decades of autocratic government. The new draft NGO law is designed to end to this marginalisation and to empower civil society

Despite a sizable population of 90 million inhabitants, only 42,000 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operate in Egypt. This reflects the need for an enabling environment that would boost the work of NGOs in Egypt to undertake their vital responsibility as a key pillar of the development triangle, along with the private sector and the state.

Recognising the pivotal role of NGOs in supporting our nascent democracy, the Egyptian Presidency decided in February 2013 to engage it in the drafting process of a critical piece of legislation — the NGO Law designed to replace Mubarak-era Law No 84 of 2002, which dealt a crippling blow to civil society in Egypt. On 29 May, President Mohamed Morsi submitted the draft law to the upper house of parliament for discussion. 

Since February 2012, approximately seven draft laws were circulated, the most well-publicised were those proposed by the Freedom and Justice Party, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Local Development.

Whereas some of those drafts reflected a pre-revolution repressive mindset with regards to the registration and funding of NGOs, others advocated a more liberal philosophy aimed at empowerment and facilitation.

The Presidency sided with the latter as a fulfillment of a revolutionary demand to lift restrictions on civic work placed by former regimes.

The Presidency's draft contains a number of provisions that would establish conditions for a robust civil society. According to articles 4-9, the registration process can take a few days, and an association can acquire legal personality simply by notification accompanied by the necessary documents.

No applicant may be denied registration except when the activity includes the creation of military or paramilitary formations, teams of organisations, or in case of a commercial or partisan activity. As per the draft law, the administrative body has no power to stop the activity of any NGO except by court order, and the registration decision has to be made within 30 days. This provision would prevent any abuse of power by the administrative body.

Moreover, the draft law enables NGOs to freely receive funds and donations from a wide array of sources, including Egyptian natural and legal persons, residing within Egypt or abroad, resident foreigners, foreign NGOs and foreign governments.

Rather than banning foreign funding as other drafts stipulated, the Presidency's draft adopted a vision of Egypt that cannot be isolated from an interdependent, globalised world system. Thus, foreign funding is permitted and regulated through a coordination committee that includes four members from civil society and four from competent ministries. The presence of security agencies in the committee has been excluded from this draft. The committee does not have the power to dismantle NGOs except by court order.

Regulation of foreign funding primarily aims at avoiding the possibility of laundering terrorist money in the form of foreign funding for NGOs. As the Venice Commission stated in its assessment of the draft, "this is a necessary, reasonable, and acceptable justification for the stricter control of funding from foreign donators."

Additionally, the main idea behind the committee is to unify the entity responsible for registration of foreign-funded NGOs, so as to avoid a lengthy and complicated registration process.

Finally, Article 51 of the draft stipulates that the General Federation for Civil Work Organisations shall be established with a legal personality. For the first time, the federation's board of directors, composed of 35 members, including the chairman, will be elected. This constitutes an essential step towards the future self-regulation of civil society through a civil entity elected by members of the profession.

Based on the aforementioned provisions, the draft law is designed to facilitate and empower civil society in Egypt. It establishes conditions for transparency, freedom, and rule of law, while complying with international standards of freedom of association.

The discussion process will continue in the Shura Council to reach the broadest consensus necessary to pass the draft. The Presidency will continue to exercise leverage to make sure the final draft fulfills the aspirations of Egyptians and complies with the constitution and international standards.

The writer is a consultant on human rights affairs at the Egyptian Presidency.

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