Egypt has experienced some extremely critical and challenging times since the overthrow of a regime that had set out to monopolise power and render society hostage to theocratically oriented Islamist organisations. The interim government and then the government that came to power following the presidential elections in 2014 had the arduous task of rebuilding the state while contending with the war against terrorism, severe economic hardship and declining resources, and concerted propaganda campaigns orchestrated by foreign powers and political forces determined to turn the clock back to conditions that the overwhelming majority of the Egyptian people adamantly opposed, as they still do today.
In the tumult that prevailed after the January 2011 Revolution, political party life and the activities of civil society organisations, whether involved in development work or rights advocacy, were thrown into such anarchy that the government had to intervene to regulate the sector, as other countries do. Only then could civil society play an effective role in the development process and broader segments of the public could contribute through civil society organisations. Political forces in the post-January Revolution period wanted to see more transparency in the operations of civil society organisations when it became clear that political money was involved in turning their activities towards the realisation of spurious agendas. Indeed, it was such factors that had enabled reactionary forces to rise to power in 2012. Reorganisation was clearly necessary and the new NGO law was introduced to serve this purpose.
Since Law 149 of 2019, more commonly known as the NGO law, was first drafted, the government has responded to many of the observations registered by civil society representatives and incorporated them into the recently ratified bylaws to this law. “The law and its bylaws reflect the faith of the state in the vital role of NGOs in the realisation of development in diverse fields by building a strong and sustainable partnership between the state and civil society that will enable them to achieve their goals in a framework of transparency and respect for the values of human rights,” a government spokesman said.
The bylaws have abolished penalties depriving NGO workers of their right to freedom of movement, restricting penalties to fines in the event of violations. They uphold the constitutionally stipulated right to establish an NGO through the submission of a notification to the relevant authority, by which act the applicant establishes the legal identity of the organisation. On the other hand, the law prohibits NGOs from engaging in political, party political or syndicate activities, or making their premises available for such purposes.
A week after the new bylaws were ratified, a court ruling lifted the assets freezes and travel bans on the staffs of 20 NGOs involved in the foreign funding case that has been ongoing since July 2011. This, too, is an important step in reaffirming the government’s intent to facilitate the operations of NGOs. Now that the investigations into them have been concluded, the NGOs will be able to resume work as long as they remain in conformity with the new law.
The Ministry of Social Solidarity reported that, by October 2017, the number civil society associations and NGOs in Egypt had risen to more than 48,000, of which some 30,000 were active. The majority are based in Greater Cairo and Alexandria although plenty are to be found in all parts of the country, including the more remote peripheries. Also, according to the ministry, 12,000 NGOs spend in the neighbourhood of LE 10 billion a year on social work. There are 96 international NGOs currently operating in Egypt.
In the Sustainable Development Strategy (SDS), or Egypt 2030, civil society organisations and NGOs have a major part to play in the realisation of sustainable development goals. The SDS sees them as indispensable in the fight to eliminate poverty, to totally eliminate hunger, to upgrade and develop healthcare and educational services, to promote gender equality and other such areas that are crucial to improving the quality of life of the Egyptian people.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly