Leading civil society organization, The United Group (UG), slammed the draft law to organize the affairs of NGOs in Egypt, in a conference Thursday on the opportunities and risks concerning civil society.
The draft law, presented by the Ministry of Social Solidarity in July, has been widely criticized for imposing more restrictions on civil society in Egypt.
UG said in a recently released report that the new draft law is a “major setback” to the right of association compared to other draft laws, especially the law presented by Hazem al-Beblawi’s government in 2013, following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The new draft law, according to UG, reflects the state’s standard fears and suspicion concerning civil society, particularly foreign organizations.
“The government considers it better to draft a law that will enable it to take preemptive measures to restrict NGOs and place them under strict control,” UG’s report commented.
The draft mandates formation by registration, which renders organizations subject to administrative authority, contrary to the constitution, which stipulates in article 75 that civil organizations should be established only through notification.
Further administrative interference is possible through the new law’s coordination committee, which effectively gives representatives of the Interior Ministry and the National Security Agency a seat at the table of every NGO board meeting.
The committee reserves broad rights to object to NGO funding. It can even object to members of an organization’s board of directors and the decisions they make.
The new draft legislation also prohibits disturbing public order and morals, taking part in political activity and undertaking field research without permission.
It specifically targets NGO funding sources, treating them as public funds, which represents a major violation of international standards.
Many NGOs object to what they consider to be the nationalization of civil society, and say the bill is reminiscent of the 1964 law passed during former President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule, which closed or co-opted independent civic activity.
New York based Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Egyptian authorities in a July statement to draft new legislation to promote the right to freedom of association.
The rights group cautioned that, if passed, the law would empower the government to “dissolve existing groups, pending a court order, or refuse to license new groups if it decided their activities could ‘threaten national unity’.”
“This law is not about regulating nongovernmental organizations — it’s about throttling them and robbing them of their independence,” said Joe Stork, HRW’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director.
“These provisions would extinguish a crucial element of democracy in Egypt,” he argued.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International issued an urgent alert concerning the draft law, as the deadline for human rights organizations to register with the government as per the 2002 law’s stipulations draws closer.
In the statement, Amnesty exhorted the authorities to end the “crackdown on civil society, in particular by ending investigations into the legitimate, peaceful activities of human rights organizations and the harassment of human rights defenders. [Amnesty International urges] authorities to withdraw the current draft law … and to ensure that any legislation regulating non-governmental organizations upholds the right to freedom of association.”
UG’s main partner, rights lawyer Negad al-Bouraei, said that the battle by civil society organizations to reform legislative structures concerning NGOs started in 1989.
“Since then we have been constantly deceived by the government with the reform of new laws. We won’t continue working as slaves for the Social Solidarity Ministry. If [the government] want this, it can close all of the NGOs and let it show us how the government can do the work we do for the people,” he explained.
UG also presented a report on the sustainability of civil society organizations in Egypt in 2012 according to eight factors. Civil society in Egypt boomed following the January 25 revolution, due to liquidity in the number of registered NGOs, which rose from 27,000 to 37,500. UG attributed this increase to the peoples’ will to engage in the public sphere.
Despite the liquidity, the sustainability report says that legal and constitutional restrictions made it harder for NGOs, syndicates and civil and political groups to freely operate in Egypt.