NGO law: Legalizing the government battle against civil society?

Amid a controversial case against NGOs charged with receiving illegal funding, a new bill regulating the work of civil society is causing widespread criticism among the field’s experts.

The draft law proposed by the government earlier this year is the same draft put on the table in 2010 by the Hosni Mubarak government that was shelved following the civil society furor it provoked.

The law has resurrected itself just as the government is putting 43 NGO workers, including 16 Americans, on criminal trial on 26 February in a case that many believe is politically charged.  Earlier this year, the offices of six NGOs in Cairo and elsewhere were raided by public prosecution officials accompanied by gun-toting special operations riot police officers.

Ziad Abdel Tawab, deputy director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, says the law “received a wave of criticism that even exceeded the criticism of [existing Law 84/2002 on NGOs].”

The government draft was put forward, Abdel Tawab says, by former Prime Minister Abdel Aziz Hegazy, “a trusted member of the infamous National Democratic Party autocracy.”

At the time, Hegazy was head of the General Federation of Associations and Foundations, in which membership is mandatory for all civil society groups registered as NGOs and whose head is appointed by the president of the republic.

The draft law evokes Mubarak-era suspicion and repression of civil society activity at every turn.

The “spirit of the law is that NGOs are affiliated with the Ministry of Social Solidarity and not independent of it,” Abdel Tawab says.

In a commentary on the draft, the Washington-based International Center for Not-for-Profit Law describes it as a “significant degradation in the already restrictive legal and regulatory environment for civil society organizations in Egypt.”

Every aspect of NGO activity — even identity — is regulated in the draft.

Article 9 limits NGO activity to “social welfare, development or the enlightenment of society,” and stipulates that no NGO may work in more than two of these three fields unless it notifies the Social Solidarity Ministry, which has since become the Supply and Social Affairs Ministry.

Human rights promotion, an activity that Egyptian civil society engaged with prominently to oppose the toppled regime, is not on the list.

The preamble to Article 3 meanwhile requires mandatory registration for anyone wishing to take part in any of the activities described in the law.

The Washington-based center notes that this “bars individuals from coming together to pursue their common interests unless they register a formal legal entity and thus accept scrutiny by the state — a clear violation of international law.”

“Activities such as weekly neighborhood clean-ups or monthly gatherings of young people to discuss politics are technically illegal if carried out by unregistered groups and will remain so under the draft law,” the organization says.

Registering as an NGO is itself a challenge.

The draft increases the number of minimum founders required to register an NGO from 10 to 20.

“High minimum founder requirements for associations prevent individuals from forming organizations that do not have widespread constituencies. For example, suppose there are only five doctors in a rural village in Aswan, and these five doctors wish to form an organization to provide free medical services to the villagers. Under the draft law, they would be prevented from doing so,” the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law says.

And then there is funding. The draft makes receiving money from abroad without prior government authorization punishable by up to one year’s imprisonment and a fine of between LE10,000 and LE20,000.

“Other nations routinely meet their obligations to ensure accountability and transparency in the civic sector without imposing prior approval requirements on foreign funding,” the center notes.

Rather than run the gauntlet of this registration process and ultimately subject themselves to heavy government control, NGOs have in the past elected to forsake the tax breaks and other benefits that come with NGO registration and establish themselves as civil companies. The draft law criminalizes this.

It prohibits “any entity other than the Ministry of Social Solidarity” from “licensing the practice of any of the activities of the associations or foundations” and, if passed, will render null and void the licenses of NGOs registered as civil companies.

“The current government is using all available means to tighten the private and public spheres of liberties. The draft law and the practices of crackdown are aiming to spread the culture of fear and create an environment of terror within a society that managed throughout 2011 to prove that individual and collective rights are inalienable,” Abdel Tawab said.

According to Abdel Tawab, Insurance and Social Affairs Minister Nagwa Khalil has said the draft is not final and they are accepting changes to it. Abdel Tawab notes, however, that they “already have piles of feedback from 2010” and that “if the ministry and the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces were sincere about their claims they would have adapted the 2010 version to the recommendations they received from NGOs, UN officials and others.”

NGOs rallied early against the legislation by drafting their own NGOs law. In 2009, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies produced an alternative law. Predictably, it was ignored. In November 2011, 39 NGOs again put forward an alternative draft and sent it to then-Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. The law, they said, “provides for the autonomy of Egyptian civil society organizations from the state and its administrative apparatus.” It too was ignored.

In early February, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights re-submitted this draft to Parliament as the NGO funding controversy trundled on in the media.

The Arab Program for Human Rights Activists also proposed a law that recognizes the right of NGOs to collect donations from either local or foreign sources through transactions that will be openly monitored, but not restricted, by the state.

“We are not seeking special legal status for these organizations,” human rights lawyer Negad al-Boraie explained at a panel on Monday. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. These laws exist in most of the world’s nations. Things don’t have to be this difficult.”

The Arab Program for Human Rights Activists’ law would also dispose of the current restriction on the amount of members an NGO is permitted to have.

“Why does the state care if an NGO has three or 30 members? Let them have as many as they want! Why is the state obsessed with such trivial matters?” said Boraie.

At the same panel, MP Amr Hamzawy emphasized the importance of maintaining a clear distinction between organizations working on civil issues and those carrying out political agendas.

“We cannot allow these critical social issues to become compromised by political interests or religious debates,” Hamzawy urged.

Critics of the new government bill and crackdown on NGOs in general maintain that the Muslim Brotherhood, the most powerful political group to emerge since the revolution, should not be spared all the questioning about NGOs and their status.

Abdel Tawab notes that the Muslim Brotherhood’s legal status is “ambiguous” at the moment, and that at some point they “will have to regularize their position, but under the current 2002 law and the draft bill, they cannot.”

The Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, now faces a choice between formulating a “progressive draft law that would allow [the Brotherhood] to exist and continue their charity and religious work without being completely controlled by the Ministry of Social Solidarity” and continuing to exist in a legal gray zone.

Have any NGOs been consulted on the law? Yes, in public prosecution offices, Abdel Tawab says.

“All the prestigious, well-established, well-known human rights NGOs are currently under investigation by the government. They are regarded as the number one enemies to the SCAF. Thus, the only consultation that is currently taking place with these NGOs is through investigation judges at the Ministry of Justice,” Abdel Tawab says.

For Haggag Nayel, program director with the Arab Program for Human Rights Activists, laws are not the only way to regulate the work of NGOs.

“NGOs should be allowed to operate in accordance to a set of clearly defined legal and moral guidelines. Yet that’s not to say we don’t expect a certain amount of integrity on their part,” Nayel says.

Nayel purports that the current NGO investigations represent a smear campaign that is affecting people’s trust in civil society, a critical link between people and the state.

“The people have been led to believe that these organizations are operating subversively and without the state’s knowledge,” says Nayel. “But the state knows everything there is to know about these organizations — they always have. They’re fully aware of the intimate details concerning how much money is involved, down to the last penny.”

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