Egypt’s contentious NGO law was approved by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and published in the Official Gazette on Monday. The law will go into effect on Tuesday, May 30, over six months after it was approved by Parliament in November 2016.
Prime Minister Sherif Ismail will now have two months to issue the implementing bylaws, and all NGOs or any other entity engaged in social work will have one year from May 30 to register in accordance with the still to be formed National Authority for the Regulation of Non-Governmental Foreign Organizations.
Mohamed Abu Hamed, the deputy of Parliament’s Social Solidarity Committee which drafted the bill, says that Sisi approved the bill as soon as he received it from Parliament. According to the MP, Parliament’s secretary only sent the bill to the president few days ago, as there is nothing in Parliament’s bylaws that obliges the parliamentary secretary to send bills to the president with a certain timeframe.
Abu Hamed asserts that the only obligation is for the president to approve a law within 30 days of receiving it from Parliament. “The president silenced all those who were under false illusions about expected amendments to the law.”
The law, a copy of which Mada Masr has obtained, includes all 89 of the articles that Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel Aal read out during the vote in November, including those that have been criticized for restricting the work of Egypt’s civil society.
Parliamentarian Haitham al-Hariry, a member of 25-30 Coalition, tells Mada Masr that Sisi’s decision to approve what he described as a controversial law was surprising to many MPs, adding that the legislation will harm Egypt’s domestic and international image.
“The law was ‘cooked up’ in four hours and took six months to be approved,” Hariry says, affirming that members of the 25-30 Coalition continue to oppose the law, even after its approval.
The law makes provision for the creation of a new national authority — the National Authority for the Regulation of Non-Governmental Foreign Organizations — whose mandate will extend beyond monitoring foreign organizations to include monitoring all NGOs who receive funding from international sources and verifying that these organizations are spending the money they receive in approved ways. The law also stipulates that the authority must be notified about local funding sources.
The National Authority for the Regulation of Non-Governmental Foreign Organizations is to be formed through presidential decree, will be headed by a full-time president, and will include representatives from the ministries of foreign affairs, defense, justice, interior, international cooperation and social solidarity. The General Intelligence Services, the Central Bank of Egypt and the government’s money laundering unit will also be represented in the organization.
While the previous draft law required an NGO to secure the approval of the authority before accepting any funding, it stipulated that, if the authority fails to respond to the request within 60 days, the request would be considered approved. The law that Sisi approved, however, considers the absence of a response to be equivalent to a rejection.
The penalties outlined in Article 88 for non-compliance with the law range from one to five years in prison, in addition to a fine of between LE50,000 and 1 million. Five year terms can be meted out to those cooperating with foreign organizations and working in civil society without a permit and those conducting or participating in field research or opinion polls in the field of civil society without prior approval.
Article 21 prohibits an association from opening headquarters or offices in any governorate without written approval from the minister of social solidarity. Those who move an association’s headquarters to somewhere other than the originally registered location may be eligible for a prison term of up to one year and a fine of up to LE500,000.
Sisi’s decision brings an end to protracted speculation over the fate of the bill that was hastily approved in November 2016 when Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry was conducting his first visit to the United States after the US presidential election. The bill was widely condemned by international NGO groups and members of the US Congress.
According to Article 123 of the Constitution, there is a 30-day period after the receipt of a piece of legislation in which the president may either approve a law or return it to Parliament with suggested amendments. The NGO law surpassed this threshold without official comment from either Parliament or the office of the presidency.
Nearly a month after the deadline for presidential action, a source in Parliament’s general secretariat speculated that the law had not reached the president’s desk because of a preference to delay its issuance. “It did not occur to those who wrote the Constitution and the bylaws of the House of Representatives that the speaker would withhold sending a law that had been approved by the legislative body’s members to the president of the republic,” the source told Mada Masr.
However, the reason for the delay has not been explained.
The ratification of the law may potentially endanger US$1.3 billion in US military aid to Egypt, which President Donald Trump’s administration approved in March.
Deputy Director for Policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) Cole Bockenfeld tells Mada Masr that 15 percent of the aid remains conditional on human rights and governance indicators, including signs that the Egyptian government “is taking effective steps to protect freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly, including the ability of civil society organizations and the media to function without interference.”
According to Bockenfeld, it will be up to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to either waive or enforce these conditions to release this portion of the aid.
Additionally, he says that despite the Trump administration’s request for $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt, it remains up to congressional appropriators whether Egypt receives this aid, and what conditions need to be met before it is released. US Senator Lindsey Graham, a key member of the US Senate Appropriations Committee, strongly criticized the NGO law in December, threatening: “Should President Sisi sign into law this draconian legislation, we will endeavor to strengthen democratic benchmarks and human rights conditions on US assistance for Egypt in fiscal years 2017 and 2018.”
The Egyptian government has severely restricted the space for human rights work, issuing numerous travel bans on rights workers and reopening investigations into the NGO foreign funding case, which had been dormant since 2011.
Update: This story has been updated to include comments from Deputy Director for Policy at POMED Cole Bockenfeld.
Translated by Mai Shams El-Din