Egyptian NGO bill with big shortcomings in crucial last phase

May 31, 2013
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi
(Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi)

In the context of restrictive legislation to hinder the work of human rights defenders, the Egyptian case deserves urgent attention now. The law on NGOs is being rewritten in this important country and others in the region may follow the example. Despite recent amendments by Egypt’s presidency, human rights defenders inside and outside the country say that proposed legislation remains dangerously repressive. “With these amendments, the law is going from bad to worse,” Mohamed Zaree, Egypt programme director at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, told Ahram Online.

At a press conference on Tuesday 21 May 2013 convened by Pakinam Al-Sharkawy, presidential advisor for political affairs, defended the revised draft. “The presidency is working towards forging a partnership between the government and Egyptian society with a view to empowering civil society groups, allowing them to work in an atmosphere of freedom, transparency and accountability,” she asserted. Tabled last February by the Islamist-led Shura Council’s human development committee, the bill has since been subject to several amendments in a bid to allay public concerns over what critics perceive as the draft law’s oppressive constraints on civil society. At least seven different versions have been issued to date, which, say observers, included minor changes that have failed to ameliorate the controversial restrictions stipulated by the law.

Rights campaigners, however, have continued to voice fears that the amended law would still give administrative bodies – rather than judicial ones – absolute discretion to decide the fate of civil society groups. For example, notes Zaree, the latest draft still does not allow civil society groups to operate locally until they obtain a “certificate of registration” from Egypt’s social solidarity ministry. NGOs are to be considered legal unless they are rejected by the relevant administrative body (the ministry of social solidarity) within a one-month period – an unwelcome alteration that Zaree says had not been included in earlier drafts. In addition to fines of up to $14,200 for a range of violations, board members of civil society groups would also risk – under the new amendments – a ban on membership in any other group for up to ten years.

The amendments simply consolidate administrative and police influence over Egyptian civil society,” Gamal Eid, rights lawyer and director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), told Ahram Online. “Even the impartial international experts consulted by the presidency have harshly condemned the draconian restrictions the bill imposes on civil society and the inherent risks to the country’s fledgling democracy,” Eid asserted.

The Forum of Independent Human Rights Organisations, a coalition of Egypt’s most active human rights groups, issued a joint statement saying that the proposed law would “stifle civil society.”  In a March 28 news release, the United Nations special rapporteurs on freedom of association and human rights defenders warned the draft law would “ultimately impede associations from fulfilling their crucial function in the promotion and protection of human rights.” Amnesty International called the law “draconian”. Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, recently urged the Egyptian government to take any steps necessary to ensure that the law did not drift further away from the ideals of Egypt’s 2011 popular uprising.

Also Human Rights Watch says the draft Associations Law would allow the government and its security agencies to arbitrarily restrict the funding and operation of independent groups if it is adopted in its present form. “This draft law dashes all hopes that independent groups could operate freely and independently after the revolution,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “Egypt’s proposed NGO law would allow the government free rein to cut off funding and halt activities of groups that it finds inconvenient. It is hostile to the very notion of independent civil society.

The most significant improvement in the current draft is that it no longer would require all funding obtained by Egyptian and international nongovernmental groups to be considered public funds [That provision would have subjected groups to the supervision of the state Central Auditing Agency and made them subject to disproportionate penalties.] However, the new draft still would give the government excessive powers over civil society groups. Article 18 would grant the government absolute discretion to object to the internal decisions and activities of groups, and to block the decisions if they disapprove. Groups would have to submit an annual financial report, as well as copies of all internal decisions and a report on annual activities to the authorities, who could object and order a halt to any of the group’s activities. If the group did not comply within 15 days, the government could take the group to court. Article 14 would require groups to notify the government in advance every time they wish to raise money through TV campaigns, charity events, or mail campaigns. It would empower the government to object on any ground and to thereby block legitimate fund-raising.

The provisions on foreign funding are extraordinarily restrictive, Human Rights Watch said. A Coordination Committee would have absolute discretion to block all access to foreign funding, without any requirement to link the objection to a specific offense. Egyptian government officials have claimed that tighter restrictions on foreign funding are necessary for security reasons and because of alleged concerns that these groups could be used for money-laundering. However, countries with flourishing civil societies address such concerns with regular criminal laws, laws on corruption, and anti-money laundering laws, Human Rights Watch said.

The draft law is even more repressive for international organisations than for domestic groups, Human Rights Watch said. The Coordination Committee would have absolute discretion to reject or approve an international organisation’s application for registration, without providing justification, although a group would be able to appeal in court. The committee would monitor these groups, including provisions that it could “object to any of the activities” and order a halt. It also says that foreign groups may not conduct “activities conducted by political parties or those that violate national sovereignty.” These terms are not defined and would be open to abusive interpretation by the authorities, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch closely followed the various drafts of the law discussed by the human rights committee in the lower house of parliament, the People’s Assembly in 2012. The first draft of the Freedom and Justice Party’s law, presented in April 2012, was far more progressive on international organisations, for example, with no distinction between them and Egyptian groups in the law other than requiring international organisations to apply to the ministry of foreign affairs for registration.

The upper house of Egypt’s parliament is currently set to embark on the final discussion and ratification phases of the bill.


One Response to “Egyptian NGO bill with big shortcomings in crucial last phase”

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