New draft law would limit the scope of work of NGOs

It didn’t take long for the draft law regulating the NGOs’ work to be finalized before it was dubbed “suppressive,” swiftly incurring the ire of a civil society community already under scrutiny and increasingly wary of the tightening grip of the executive branch.

The Social Affairs Ministry, responsible for supervising the work of NGOs in Egypt, finalized the draft law and will submit it to the Shura Council for approval.

The upper house of Parliament — which, like the dissolved lower house as well as the Constituent Assembly, is dominated by Islamists — has had temporary legislative powers since the passing of the new Constitution and until a new House of Representatives is elected.

Activists are angry and concerned about the future of NGOs in light of the stipulations delineated in the proposed law.

Local and international NGO employees interviewed by Egypt Independent have criticized the law for giving authorities the power to control their operations by requiring these organizations to obtain permission from more than one state body before receiving foreign funding. Under current legislation, they only need to acquire the go-ahead from the Social Affairs Ministry.

The draft law also bans NGOs from taking part in political activities, and comprises articles that may considerably restrict their scope of work, particularly foreign organizations.

About 40,000 NGOs would be required to legalize their status and address funding issues retroactively. This comes as the infamous NGO trial, launched last year and seen by some as highly politicized, is still under way against a number of organizations charged with receiving illegal foreign funding.

Mohamed Esmat al-Sadat, a lawyer and former deputy of the dissolved People’s Assembly human rights committee, is unsurprised, saying, “The general atmosphere restricts freedoms.”

“The formulation of the law comes as no surprise, especially as this week, the government also finished preparing a law that clearly restricts the right to protest. There is also controversy over the freedom of information law prepared by the Justice Ministry,” he adds.

Sadat says a request was sent to President Mohamed Morsy to delay the issuance of the law, but this has not happened, which is worrying. He believes its endorsement will have negative repercussions.

“Egypt’s reputation in the international community is at stake. It will be seen as a country that lacks the culture of civil society work, particularly since this legislation is issued by the government of an elected president,” he adds.

Restrictive regulations

NGOs are defined and categorized in the first chapter of the draft law, composed of 25 articles, whereas the current legislation does not offer a clear definition, which is not necessarily seen as negative.

However, it goes on to tackle new issues that are not touched on in the current law, which is causing concern among activists. Article 3, for example, states that all funds and donations received by NGOs from inside or outside Egypt are considered public funds.

Meanwhile, Article 16 bans NGOs from receiving funds from foreign entities without the prior approval of a “coordination committee” made up of representatives from the Justice, Foreign, Social Affairs, Interior, and Planning and International Cooperation ministries, as well as the General Intelligence Agency and the Central Bank of Egypt, along with a judge from the State Council.

Mohamed al-Ansary, a lawyer at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, argues that these articles are meant to terminate the work of most NGOs in Egypt.

“It is well-known that most local and international NGOs receive funding from abroad to finance their projects and programs, and they are required to notify the government and specifically the Social Affairs Ministry of the funds received,” says Ansary.

But when sovereign and security bodies get involved, it shows that a security-based perspective is governing, “whether or not we have the right to receive the funds in question,” he says.

“This will definitely harm the future of civil society, which will now be controlled by military men,” says Ansary. “Besides, how come donations are considered public funds if they are originally private money?”

Some articles would further necessitate restructuring NGOs.

In most cases, NGOs are divided into associations and institutions, with most organizations in Egypt registered as the latter. Under the current law, associations plan for their programs and projects after receiving the approval of members, while institutions are governed by the vision of their founders, without the need for a general assembly.

The law places a new capital requirement of at least LE250,000 on institutions, ignoring the fact that most organizations are not exactly flush with cash.

“Several institutions are poor and cannot meet this financial requirement. Given the difficulty of finding a foreign source of funding, they will have to register as associations, but it will be difficult for them to form a general assembly,” says Ansary.

This is impractical, mainly because some of these organizations don’t have enough people to form an assembly.

“The other two alternatives are for them to halt operations or come up with the money — which is unlikely,” he says.

He criticizes the incorporation of articles that he sees as entrenching state power over NGOs.

He also says Article 7 is unconstitutional, since it contradicts Article 1 of the Constitution, stipulating that political parties and organizations be formed after simply notifying authorities, while the draft law obliges NGOs to obtain approval from the Social Affairs Ministry within 60 days of submitting said notification.

In a more drastic measure, Article 20 allows ministry representatives to be present at NGOs’ offices and review their books. It also grants them arrest powers and the right to solicit help from personnel from other government entities, including security bodies.

A source who works for a foreign NGO speaking on condition of anonymity tells Egypt Independent that foreign NGOs can operate in Egypt either through an international agreement signed between the government and a foreign entity, or by obtaining a permit.

Besides this, the source says, foreign organizations can work without a license if their work is based on research and studies.

Depoliticizing NGOs

Mohamed al-Agaty, executive director of the Arab Forum for Alternatives, says the draft law reflects the government’s poor understanding of an NGO’s function and the culture of civil society work.

The first battle between the government and civil society began about a year after the 25 January uprising.

In December 2011, Egyptian authorities stormed the offices of several NGOs, both local and international. When the investigations concluded in February, 43 rights activists, including 13 foreigners, were put on trial for allegedly receiving illegal foreign funding.

All of the accused worked for three branches of an American and a German NGO, and were referred to criminal court. The court has yet to rule in the case.

Hafsa Halawa, one of the 43 defendants in the NGOs trial and a member of the National Democratic Institute in Cairo, says the case is intended to influence the way legislators and the Egyptian public view civil society.

NGOs in Egypt allegedly received LE3 billion in funds last year, according to government figures. After the raid, the government said it would amend Law 84/2002, which regulates NGOs’ work.

At the time, government officials and then-Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri, the last premier under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ rule, said new legislation would ensure the protection of state sovereignty.

Governmental and non-governmental entities submitted draft laws to the Islamist-dominated Parliament in place at the time; however, it was dissolved before it could issue the new law.

“After he rose to power, Morsy emphasized that democracy has three pillars: the judiciary, the media and civil society. The first two suffered and continue to suffer under the current regime through smear campaigns organized by the Muslim Brotherhood and from decisions and legislation that limit their actions. Now it is the NGOs’ turn to suffer,” Agaty says.

Halawa says the new law entrenches a vision that results in restrictive measures against local and foreign NGOs. It prevents NGOs from exercising politics or conducting opinion polls without permission from the Social Affairs Ministry.

More importantly, NGOs can only undertake developmental projects, inhibiting their broad scope of work. “The system of civil society is complementary, and the development of society is not restricted to the conduct of developmental projects,” she says.

It was the politically oriented work of NGOs that made Egyptian authorities scrutinize NGOs’ funding, which led to the court case. This work was mainly in the form of training political parties, as was the case before the first post-revolution parliamentary elections — when, ironically, much work was done with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The conditions set for these organizations to continue operating remain loose and vague, with one article stating that they must work within the “priorities of Egyptian society,” without specifying what these priorities are.

“I don’t know why the government of the Muslim Brotherhood wants to pass this law,” Halawa says. “Does it want to stop training political parties before elections to ensure it faces no competition?”

Or, she adds, “Does it find civil society organizations dangerous to the regime, as their predecessor did?”

This article was translated from Arabic by Dina Zafer.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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