In a surprise move, Egypt’s Parliament announced the approval of a controversial draft NGO bill on November 15 after a parliamentary session the previous day.
The NGO bill drafted by Parliament differs from another bill the government submitted to the State Council for review in September. Deliberations on the new legislation took place in secret, parallel to the government’s draft.
Letters annexed to the bill show that it was discussed in the last session of Parliament’s first phase of plenaries in September, then referred to a joint committee composed of members of the social solidarity, family, disabled individuals and constitutional and legislative affairs parliamentary committees.
While Abdel Hady al-Qassaby, head of the Social Solidarity Committee in the House of Representatives, told privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper that the draft does not contain penalties that infringe on civil liberties, the bill itself gives a different impression.
For example, the penalties stipulated by Parliament’s bill extend to prison terms, where Cabinet’s legislation only proposes fines. According to Article 87 of the parliamentary draft, prison time may range from one year to five, and fines of between LE50,000 and 1 million can be issued. Crimes considered punishable by five years’ imprisonment 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.
Those who move an association’s headquarters to somewhere other than the originally registered location may be eligible for prison time of no more than a year, and a fine ranging between LE20,000 and 500,000, according to Article 88.
These penalties can also be imposed on officials responsible for issuing licenses to organizations that have violated the law.
The Parliament’s bill places new restrictions on the work of NGOs exceeding those included in the current legislation, many of which are also outlined in the Cabinet’s draft. For example, it stipulates that associations may not practice any activity that falls within the scope of political parties, professional or labor syndicates or any other institution of a political nature.
Associations are obliged “to work according to the state’s plan and its developmental needs,” Article 14 stipulates. It also bans institutions from conducting any opinion polls or field research and publishing or making the results available without first presenting them to the National Authority for the Regulation of Non-Governmental Foreign Organizations “to ensure their integrity and impartiality.”
Furthermore, it is not permissible for an association to open headquarters or offices in any governorate without prior written approval from the minister of social solidarity, according to Article 21.
In order for an association to receive or collect any donations from within Egypt, Article 23 outlines that the relevant administrative entity must be notified 30 business days prior.
According to Article 13, associations operating in governorates’ border regions must obtain approval from the government in addition to other required approvals.
The bill drafted by Parliament also introduces the aforementioned National Authority for the Regulation of Non-Governmental Foreign Organizations which, despite what its name implies, will also monitor local NGOs that receive funding, whether foreign or Egyptian, in addition to international organizations. It is mandated with approving the work carried out by foreign organizations and foreign funding in Egypt, and verifying that NGO funds are spent on the goals specified upon the receipt of local donations.
The authority consists of a full-time president and two representatives from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defense, Justice, Interior and International Cooperation. There will also be one representative from the Ministry of Social Solidarity, the General Intelligence Services, the Central Bank, the Money Laundering Unit and the Administrative Control Authority.
Article 66 stipulates that associations or entities subject to the provisions of the bill are not permitted to engage foreigners as experts, tenured or temporary staff or volunteers without first obtaining a license from the authority.
In order to receive foreign funding, organizations must first seek approval from the National Authority for the Regulation of Non-Governmental Foreign Organizations, as specified in Article 24. The authority has a 60-day window in which to respond to funding applications. However, while the government’s draft considers a failure to respond after 60 days an approval, the Parliament’s deems it a rejection.
Mohamed Zaree, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, says that the parliamentary bill “has surpassed all limits,” calling it “more repressive” than the government-proposed legislation. He was a member of the committee drafting yet another draft NGO law, created by former Minister of Social Solidarity Ahmed al-Boraie in 2013.
He believes that the new draft not only represses human rights organizations, but also goes after small and local development associations and individual initiatives. He considers it an indication that the state is declaring war on civil society organizations.
According to Zaree, the newly passed bill shows that “the loyalty of the current Parliament is to the security apparatus, and not the people they are supposed to represent.”
Twenty-two human rights organizations and political parties issued a statement on Tuesday declaring their opposition to the draft, writing that it “effectively eradicates civil society and defers administration of it to the government and the security apparatus.” In their joint statement, the groups condemned the Parliament’s treatment of civil society “as an enemy to be defeated through secret plots and laws.”
Translated by Lina Attalah.