UK criticizes new NGO law calling it a ‘step backwards’

The British government has criticized Egypt’s new NGO law, calling it “a step backwards.” This is the first intergovernmental response to the law since it was passed by Parliament on November 29.

In an official statement released on Thursday, the United Kingdom’s Minister for North Africa Tobias Ellwood expressed his concerns about the law’s implications for civil society in Egypt. He said: “It leaves Egypt further than ever from implementing the civil society freedoms outlined in the Egyptian constitution. I have raised these concerns with Egyptian members of Parliament who visited London this week.”

Ellwood asserted that “Britain supports a strong civil society in Egypt.” He added the new law is a step backwards, saying: “At a time of economic hardship, Egypt needs civil society more than ever. So I am deeply concerned that this legislation will be used to prevent Egyptians from contributing to their country’s future, and will create obstacles to international support to Egypt.”

The law was condemned locally and internationally, even before it was passed.  The restrictive conditions it imposes on establishing civil society organizations and receiving funding drew particular criticism. Concerns were raised by rights organizations facing a state-engineered crackdown through travel bans issued against rights defenders and the proceedings of the ongoing NGO foreign funding case, and by various charity and development organizations. These groups claimed the new law greatly impedes the charity, services and activities they offer.

UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of assembly and association Maina Kiai stated on November 23 that the law threatens to “devastate the country’s civil society for generations to come and turn it into a government puppet.”

The New York-based organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) similarly condemned the law earlier this month, slamming it for “banning independent civil society groups” in Egypt.

“Egypt’s Parliament is trying to dodge public scrutiny by rushing into force a law that would effectively ban what remains of the country’s independent civil society groups,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at HRW. She added: “If this law passes, it would be a farce to say that Egypt allows ‘non-governmental’ organizations, since all would be subject to the security agencies’ control.”

The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) added to the chorus of criticism, releasing a statement signed by 60 local and international human rights organizations who believe that the law threatens constitutional guarantees of the freedom and independence of civil society in Egypt, calling upon President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi not to ratify the law.

Mada Masr obtained and published the draft law earlier this month. The government had previously produced its own bill, which also came under criticism from human rights organizations. However these groups declared that the parliamentary draft was even harsher, placing further restrictions on civil society organizations.

The law drafted by Parliament introduces a new regulatory body — the National Authority for the Regulation of Non-Governmental Foreign Organizations — whose mandate will include not only the monitoring of foreign organizations, but any NGOs receiving foreign funding. It is also tasked with verifying that these organizations are spending the money in the approved ways. The authority must also be notified about locally sourced funding.

Formed through a presidential decree itwill headed by a full-time president, and include representatives from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defense, Justice, Interior, International Cooperation and Social Solidarity. General Intelligence, as well as the Central Bank and the government’s money laundering unit, will also be represented.

While the government’s draft law stated that the authority must issue approval for any NGO wishing to receive funding, it considered a lack of response within 60 days equivalent to approval. However the current law considers a lack of response a rejection.

Penalties outlined in Article 87 of the new law include prison sentences ranging from one to five years, in addition to fines of between LE50 thousand and LE1 million, however the penalties proposed in the government’s draft were limited only to fines. Crimes considered punishable by five-year prison sentences include cooperating with a foreign organization to practice civil society work without obtaining permits, and conducting or participating in field research or opinion polls in the field of civil society without prior approval.

Additionally, it is not permissible for an association to open headquarters or offices in any governorate without written approval from the minister of social solidarity, according to Article 21. Those who move an association’s headquarters to somewhere other than the originally registered location may be eligible for prison time of up to a year and a fine of up to LE500,000.

The law has also been heavily criticized for the provision stating that associations are obliged “to work according to the state’s plan and its developmental needs.”

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