An administrative court ruling over the weekend that greenlit the disbursal of 1.5 million euros to the Sadat Association for Social Development & Welfare “merely puts up a facade of judicial fairness,” the head of the NGO embroiled in the state’s crackdown on international funding to civil society’ organizations told Mada Masr on Sunday.
The State Council issued a judicial ruling on Thursday mandating that the Social Solidarity Ministry approve a 2018 grant offered to the Sadat Association for Social Development & Welfare by the embassies of Norway, Switzerland and Germany in Cairo to develop the capacities of civil society and governmental workers.
While the case may seem to mark a divergent path for a government that has sought to enshrine stringent control over foreign funding to civil society in a contentious NGO law and marshaled forth a harsh crackdown on prominent figures in the field, Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat, a former MP and the head of the Sadat Association, tells Mada Masr that the decision will have no effect in practice, as the donors had already withdrawn the funds because of the delays.
Sadat submitted a request to the Social Solidarity Ministry in 2018 to obtain approval for the grant, but his request was denied.
“We knew that the reason for the rejection was security-related because the Ministry of Solidarity is only a facade, and it is not the decision-maker,” Sadat told Mada Masr, adding that the grants had been approved in 2012, 2013 and 2014, and there is no reason for their rejection.”
Sadat Association lawyer Sameh Samir told Mada Masr that the organization had filed three lawsuits against the ministry’s decision in 2019 which concerned another grant and a project that were put on hold due to the ministry’s lack of response on the matter.
Nasser Amin, the director of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession, pointed out that Thursday’s verdict was not the first of its kind and that several similar rulings have previously been issued by the State Council, “including a ruling issued nearly three years ago regarding a fund granted to the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, obliging the Social Solidarity Ministry to approve funding from an American donor. ”
Amin added that these delays are an “indirect mechanism to disrupt civil society’s work, because filing a lawsuit against the rejection of grants takes years, a time in which the funds are frozen, which leads donors to transfer the funds to support other institutions in order to quickly achieve their goals.”
For Mohamed Zaree, the director of Cairo Center for Human Rights, the State Council’s ruling does not prevent further delays and rejections, “because those parties see themselves above the law.” The solution, he maintained, would be to follow up on the grant process and “make sure that it has been received as well as ensuring accountability in case of violations”
Under the pretense that local NGOs have illegally received foreign funding, the government has led a crackdown on civil society dating back to December 2011, when authorities stormed the headquarters of 17 foreign and local civil society organizations. The case was then split into two parts, one concerning foreign organizations operating in Egypt, and another concerning local ones. In June 2013, 43 defendants — including Egyptian, American and European nationals — working for foreign organizations were handed prison sentences ranging from one to five years. A retrial was ordered in April 2018 and all 42 defendants were acquitted in December 2018. However, the case targeting local NGOs continued, with the Public Prosecution assigning it to an investigative judge in March 2016. This was followed by asset freezes and travel bans being handed down against numerous civil society workers. The case has not been referred to criminal trial and the exact number of local groups implicated is unknown.
In December, an investigative judge announced that investigations into 20 NGOs have ended and no criminal cases will be pursued. However, a number of lawyers and civil society workers downplayed the significance of the ruling, telling Mada Masr that the decision did not apply to the more “serious” organizations working in the contentious field of human rights.
In mid-January, the long-delayed executive bylaws for new legislation governing the operations of NGOs were published in the Official Gazette on Thursday, a final step in the implementation of the highly scrutinized law.
The bylaws sparked mixed reactions by legal analysts and human rights lawyers, with some pointing to positive changes in the rules governing foreign funding while also warning that the regulations may reproduce a restrictive environment for civil society with security agencies granted the right to oversee the work of NGOs.
The law has gone through several iterations. An initial version that was ratified in 2017 was highly controversial, as it was deemed restrictive by members of civil society organizations, among others, who stressed how much it would impede their work. One of its most contentious components was the planned formation, by presidential decree, of a new national authority — the National Authority for the Regulation of Non-Governmental Foreign Organizations — with a mandate to monitor all NGOs that receive funding from international sources, and verify that the funds received are being spent in approved ways.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called for the 2017 NGO law to be amended in November 2018 following widespread domestic and international criticism of its provisions that imposed steep restrictions on the work of thousands of NGOs in the country. While Sisi had ratified the 2017 law, its executive bylaws were never passed, creating a murky legal landscape for NGOs in Egypt. An amended version of the NGO law was finally passed by Parliament in July 2019. The government ratified the bylaws this past November following a crackdown on the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights that saw three of its senior staff arrested and imprisoned after they met with a group of ambassadors and diplomats in their Cairo office.