With the recently adopted executive bylaws for Law 149/2019 regulating civil society, Egypt has taken a major step in the codification of community work. The law marks “a unique qualitative shift for civil society associations in Egypt,” according to Minister of Social Solidarity Nevine Al-Kabbag. “Its various articles and many privileges are on par with the strongest community work laws in the world.” The NGO law guarantees the right to establish civil society organisations by mere formal notification and the right to exercise their activities freely. It has eliminated red tape and prohibited government authorities from intervening in NGO affairs, dissolving them or dismissing their boards of directors except by court ruling.
The executive bylaws translate the rights and privileges enshrined in the law into practical terms. “It contains articles that support all forms of human rights, especially the right to form civil associations and private community organisations,” Al-Kabbag added. “The law marks a breakthrough, especially with respect to sources of funding and the surveillance of their activities. It has introduced effective controls on the powers to dissolve and penalise them.” It includes articles designed to promote the freedom to volunteer and the principles of accountability and good governance, which officials regard as “the beginning of a new historical stage in the history of civil society work that proceeds from an approach that is both developmental and rights oriented.”
The new law was drafted in response to President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s appeal to lawmakers to address the demands of civil society to review Law 70/2017 with a view to opening up new horizons to rights and freedoms and a broader scope for civil society activity in Egypt.
Al-Kabbag stated, “Law 148 with its executive bylaws is incontrovertible proof of the changes that have taken place in social policies. They have swept aside old policies centring on the provision of a narrow and restricted range of social services, the criteria of entitlement to which were always the object of doubt and confusion, clearing the way to broader social policies of comprehensive development, the importance of partnership between the three sectors of the state, and the role the civil society sector can play as the government’s fundamental partner in development, progress and the elimination of poverty in its various dimensions.”
According to the Federation of Civil Society Associations, the law “facilitates the bureaucratic processes required to establish NGOs, solicit donations and spend funds.” With the newly adopted bylaws, it “ushers in a new phase of mutual trust between civil society and government and rounds out the circle of legislative reform for the community work ecosystem in Egypt.” The bylaws give existing NGOs six months to bring their affairs into compliance with the regulations. The ministry and the federation are expected to launch a nationwide campaign to raise NGO awareness on how to meet the compliance requirements. Should an association fail to comply, the ministry would bring the matter to a court seeking a ruling to dissolve the entity in question.
As for associations accused of working with terrorist organisations, the new regulations stipulate that they can only commence the compliance process after receiving a final court ruling acquitting them of all charges. The law prohibits NGOs from engaging in political, political party or syndicate activities, or letting their offices be used for such purposes.
According to the Federation of Civil Society Associations, some 700 NGOs in Egypt receive foreign funding, the amount of which is contingent on the projects the associations carry out. Grants come from foreign NGOs, independent international organisations such as the UN Population Fund, the Red Cross, the International Planned Parenthood Federation, UNESCO, or foreign governmental organisations such as USAID. The donor organisations generally stipulate the type of activities they fund in accordance with their own charters. Some work in housing, others in education or the eradication of illiteracy, others in poverty reduction. The Egyptian government is looking forward to more extensive and closer cooperation with civil society organisations in development work, in order to surmount obstacles to progress and improve the efficacy of social services and human development efforts.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.