Rights workers criticize Egypt’s new Cabinet-approved NGO law

The government approved Egypt’s new draft NGO law on Thursday, sending it to the State Council and then Parliament for review.

The bill has been met with staunch criticism from civil society organizations and human rights defenders, who say it further obstructs independent human rights work in Egypt.

The new draft, obtained by Mada Masr, is comprised of seven chapters and 63 articles addressing the work and funding of local and international civil society organizations, as well as the penalties if NGOs violate the law.

The new bill was drafted following a constitutional stipulation — Article 75 of the 2014 Constitution — which states that NGOs can be founded purely by notification, reversing the 2002 NGO law mandating official authorization for them to operate.

But human rights defenders who have seen the recent draft worry it has circumvented the Constitution by granting security apparatuses the right to object to the foundation of an NGO after it submits notification.

Negad al-Borai, a human rights lawyer and head of the United Group for legal services, says, “A notification is not a notification anymore,” explaining that the guidelines for founding a new organization include presenting a criminal record for all founders and a LE1,000 registration fee.

Mohamed Zarea, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, says the law violates Article 75 of the Constitution, which requires the registration of NGOs through notification without any administrative intervention.

Article 4 of the draft NGO law stipulates that the administrative body tasked with handling notifications from NGOs can refrain from registering an organization within 30 days of the notification date if “one of the objectives of the association is to pursue an illegal activity, according to the Penal Code, or if the notification annexes are not complete.” The administrative body should inform the founders about the reasons for rejection, or the NGO is considered to have been legally founded. The NGO can address the issue of missing information or documentation, or can appeal the decision of the administrative body before a specialized court within 60 days of the notification date.

The draft law also makes room for the administrative body to approve or disapprove of an NGO’s activities and for administrative representatives to enter NGO headquarters “to offer technical support, observe activities, look over documents and examine administrative and financial work.”

The bill stipulates the formation of a new executive committee, to include representatives from General Intelligence Services, the Ministry of Interior and other ministries, which will approve foreign funding for local NGOs, and have the authority to monitor foreign organizations permitted to operate in Egypt.

Article 48 stipulates the formation of a coordination committee, through a decree by the prime minister, headed by the relevant minister, or a delegated representative, and to include members from the ministries of: Foreign Affairs, Justice, Interior, International Cooperation, Social Solidarity, as well as the National Security Agency, the Central Bank, and the vice president of the State Council.

NGOs have to present a request to this committee to be able to receive any foreign funding. The committee may approve or decline this request within 60 days.

Borai says this is to be expected, given the current political context. “In a country where thousands are prosecuted because of a protest law, and civil society workers are prosecuted, do we expect to see a good law organizing the work of civil society? Given the current environment, we cannot expect a democratic law at all,” he adds.

The new law places Egypt’s security apparatuses at the forefront of monitoring the work of NGOs, through their membership on the coordination committee. In the past, this was more of an invisible hand, Borai explains. “The government has been working for the last two years on restructuring the legislative system to violate the constitution,” Borai claims. “Even in the time of Mubarak we didn’t see this,” he adds.

“Foreign funding conditions represent strong intervention from the administrative body in the work of civil society organizations without a judicial order. Security agencies will interfere through their membership on the coordination committee to paralyze the work of independent organizations by controlling their funding,” Zarea says.

Although the new law removes any freedom-depriving penalties, unlike the current law, which penalizes violators through imprisonment, Zarea criticizes the heavy fines for financial or administrative violations, saying they are disproportionate to the offences.

Hafez Abu Saeda, member of the state-formed National Council for Human Rights, and head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, also criticizes the draft law and its quick approval by the Cabinet. On his Twitter account, he says the Cabinet was supposed to receive feedback until September 20, but preferred to “overlook societal dialogue.”

Zarea remembers the NGO law prepared by civil society representatives, as commissioned by former Minister of Social Solidarity Hassan al-Borai in 2013. Zarea was a member of the committee and says it was one of the best draft laws to come from government. “Why didn’t this law ever see the light of day? Maybe this is what led to Borai’s departure from the Cabinet?” he speculates, adding, The draft law was withdrawn the moment new minister Ghada Waly took over.”

“We are committed to the draft law we proposed before,” Saeda also says of this 2013 bill.

The law coincides with the reopening of the 2011 NGO case, known as the 173 foreign funding case, in which a number of human rights defenders and heads of civil society organizations are being investigated. Zarea, whose organization is implicated in the case, says the new law is one of two paths the state has laid to obstruct the work of civil society. “The first path is the 173 case against workers in human rights organizations. It is clear the state is determined to pursue this path to the end. The second path is the current draft law, which will be applied once the first path has been pursued, as the government will have guaranteed its complete control over civil society,” he says.

Investigative judges assigned by the public prosecutor to conduct the investigations for case 173 issued a series of travel bans and asset freeze requests earlier this year for a number of people working in local human rights organizations. They have also summoned a number of staff in these organizations to question them in relation to accusations of forming illegal entities, receiving unauthorized funding and using such funds in activities deemed harmful to national security. No formal accusations have been made to date, and no referral to a criminal court has taken place.

Zarea says: “The draft law was written with a security mentality and culture, based on revenging the January revolution and guaranteeing it doesn’t happen again.”

Mai Shams El-Din 

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