Egypt’s Parliament hastily approved a new NGO law on Tuesday, just a day after the State Council concluded it has no indications of unconstitutionality.
Parliamentarian and member of the oppositional 25-30 Coalition Haitham al-Hariry explained to Mada Masr that the law was not passed unanimously, but said it is difficult to know how many parliamentarians voted for or against it because of the absence of an electronic voting system.
“The State Council had reservations concerning 23 out of 89 articles, almost a third of the new law. This is an indication the drafting process was too hasty,” Hariry asserted. Lawmakers did not have enough time to review it properly before voting on it, he added.
Parliamentary Speaker Ali Abdel Aal said the approval of the law is “a message to the entire world that Egypt is an independent and sovereign country. This Parliament is wholeheartedly united,” the privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper reported.
Various human rights organizations and political parties released a statement criticizing the draft.
Egypt’s State Council must initially pass such bills, assessing their constitutionality, before passing them to Parliament for approval. Head of the State Council’s legislative division Ahmed Abul Azm announced on Monday that the department had completed revisions of the draft and sent it back to Parliament to continue procedures for its ratification.
Abul Azm said the State Council did not make any changes to the draft, including the contentious national authority to regulate any groups that receive foreign funding.
It has been clear for some time that the state is seeking to severely restrict the space for human rights work, with a war being waged in the form of numerous travel bans on rights defenders and the reactivation of the NGO foreign funding case, which was dormant since 2011.
Various charitable organizations say the new law will severely restrict their work and delivery of services.
Ahl Masr (The People of Egypt) works with burns victims and is looking to establish the country’s first specialized burns hospital. Head of the organization, Heba al-Seweidy, criticized the law and the fast process by which it came into being in a post on her Facebook page.
Seweidy condemned the Parliament’s obliviousness to the role that organizations such as Ahl Masr play, adding that, “the people who need food, education, water and safe homes wouldn’t have survived without these organizations in recent years.”
Actor Mohamed Sobhy, founder and head of Ma’an (Together) which works on the development of informal areas, revealed that he is now in the process of dismantling his organization after the passing of the law. In a phone contribution to “90 minutes,” a show on Al-Mehwar TV, Sobhy said there was no good reason for him to continue in his role, “as long as it’s being hijacked and turning me into a government employee.”
Sobhy suggested that by imposing itself on all things that concern the work of civil society organizations, the state is effectively saying there’s no need for their work.
Journalist Mohamed Garhy, founder of the 25 January charity hospital, noted 15 observations on the new law, which he said would lead to the closure of several organizations “that play an important role in compensating for the failure and incapacity of the state.”
Mada Masr obtained and published the draft law earlier this month. The government had previously produced its own bill, which had come under criticism from human rights organizations. These same groups declared the parliamentary draft to be even harsher.
The law drafted by Parliament introduces a new national authority — the National Authority for the Regulation of Non-Governmental Foreign Organizations — whose mandate will not be limited to monitoring foreign organizations, but will also include the monitoring of any NGOs who receive foreign funding, and verifying that these organizations are spending the money they receive in approved ways. The authority must also be notified about locally sourced funding.
The authority is to be formed through a presidential decree, headed by a full-time president, and have among its members representatives from the ministries of foreign affairs, defense, justice, the 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, according to the new law.
While the previous draft law mandated the approval of the authority for any NGO funding, it considered a lack of response within 60 days equivalent to approval, while the current law considers a lack of response within the same period equivalent to a rejection.
The penalties in Article 87 of the new law range from one to five years imprisonment, in addition to a fine of between LE50 thousand and LE1 million. Crimes considered punishable by five-year 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.
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.
Associations are obliged “to work according to the state’s plan and its developmental needs,” Article 14 stipulates.
Mohamed Zaree, the head of the Cairo office of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) previously told Mada Masr that the new law does not only target human rights organizations, but all local development organizations and individual initiatives. For him, the law indicates that the state is at war with civil society.