Egypt moves ahead with law to stifle non-governmental organizations

A new law on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Egypt, currently with the Shura Council, would effectively be a death blow to independent civil society in Egypt, said Amnesty International.

If it passes in its current form, the Egyptian authorities would have wide-ranging powers over the registration, activities and funding of civil society organizations. It would also allow for the creation of a new Co-ordinating Committee, which is likely to include representatives of security and intelligence agencies.

Those found in violation of the law would face hefty fines and potential prison sentences.

President Morsi announced today that he had referred the law to the Shura Council, Egypt’s nominal upper house of parliament. While the lower house remains dissolved, the Council has the authority to pass new legislation until elections are held to elect a lower house.

“If they pass the law in its current form, the Egyptian authorities would send a message that little has changed since the Mubarak era, when the authorities restricted independent human rights organizations to stop them from exposing abuses,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International.

“Passing a law such as this one in a country with a long history of cracking down on the work of human rights organizations would be incredibly dangerous. If Egypt is serious about moving forward from its recent past, the authorities must turn away from this law and instead enable an environment for NGOs to ensure human rights are protected and promoted.”

The latest draft law, made available on 18 May, largely ignores the concerns raised and recommendations provided by national and international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International – as well the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – to bring the proposal in line with international law and standards.

Under the proposed law, any organization that wants official registration must notify the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs, which can raise objections. This procedure is a form of prior authorization, which is inconsistent with international standards.

Article 13 states that any NGO seeking foreign funding must notify a newly created Co-ordinating Committee, which would have the power to approve or reject the request. Under the current law, the authorities have routinely denied or delayed funding to human rights organizations in order to restrict their work.

The law also states that organizations must annually provide copies of their accounts, reports of programmes and sources of funding to the Regional Union (which the law defines as a “voluntary” union created by NGOs) and the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs. The Ministry can then object to any of the organization’s decisions and take the matter to court.

Under Article 16 any individual, association, or body would be allowed to examine records of the organization’s activities, after submitting a request to the Ministry of Insurance and Social Solidarity or the Regional Union. In practice, this is likely to open the door for the security agencies to control and interfere in the work of human rights organizations.

The proposed law is particularly draconian in regards to the registration and activities of international NGOs, which in practice can prevent international human rights organizations critical of the country’s human rights record from carrying out any work in Egypt. The law would in effect give the authorities the power to restrict the registration, funding and activities of NGOs which expose human rights violations or defend victims of abuse.

Since the 2011 “25 January Revolution”, the Egyptian authorities have cracked down on independent civil society, including human rights organizations. Several NGOs which are registered with the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs, including women’s rights organizations, told Amnesty International that they have been waiting for up to 16 months for permission to obtain funding.

In July 2011, the Egyptian government launched an investigation into the foreign funding of NGOs, leading to an unprecedented series of raids on international and Egyptian civil society groups that December.

Following the raids, 43 staff members of international organizations were put on trial on charges of operating without official registration and obtaining foreign funding without the authorities’ permission. The verdict is expected on 4 June.

The crackdown has continued under President Mohamed Morsi, who took office in June 2012.

Earlier this year, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights received a letter from the government warning it that it was not allowed to engage with “international entities” without the permission of the security forces.

“It is staggering that considering the huge economic, political and social challenges faced by Egypt today, the new authorities have prioritized marshalling through a draconian NGOs law that is so reminiscent of Mubarak-era rhetoric and tactics to stifle NGOs,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

“It appears merely to be an attempt to scapegoat NGOs as a way to divert attention away from the authorities’ poor record.”

Independent civil society organizations in Egypt have played a vital role in exposing human rights violations and providing services for victims.