Civil Society in Egypt Still Matters

In late March, Egypt’s Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, Magdi al-Agati, indicated that the government would soon submit to parliament a new law regulating the work of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the country. According to Agati, the proposed law will make it easier for Egyptian civil society organizations (CSOs) to operate and defend the rights of citizens in keeping with the constitution’s “liberal philosophy.” He added that NGOs will be able to “perform their activities with complete freedom.” Local CSOs, who say they are facing unprecedented legal restrictions and witnessing an increased targeting of rights activists, doubt the new law will change this trend. Previous laws have increased restrictions on civil society organizations, in particular those that promote human rights and democracy, and some rights activists say the proposed law will further curtail their work. These increased restrictions on civil society hinder the ability to provide key services such as raising awareness on key issues and acting as a bridge between government and the broader public.

According to Khaled Sultan, the head of the Ministry of Social Solidarity’s Central Administration of NGOs, the new bill reserves the government’s right “to supervise and control the work of civil society organizations and follow up on their funding sources and methods of spending.” Although the text of the draft bill has not been made public, the 2016 version was described by leading rights activist Gamal Eid as worse than previous drafts. An abandoned 2015 draft would have limited CSO activities to the arena of social welfare and development and maintained the vague premises on which the government could reject or dissolve an NGO.  Through the establishment of a “coordinating committee,” the 2015 version would have also placed NGO activities under the supervision of the national security apparatus and further restricted its access to funding.

The State Council’s Administrative Court also recently ruled that NGOs have the right to receive foreign funding. The ruling was a mixed bag. On the one hand, it stated that the ministry must respond to foreign funding requests or find itself in breach of the law, adding that the ministry does not have “arbitrary authority” in dealing with NGOs, and rather has “discretionary power based on just and logical reasoning.” On the other, it included the caveat that the funding would be permitted as long as the Ministry of Social Solidarity didn’t view it as a threat to peace, security, or public morality. 

A Legal Framework

Egypt has developed several legal layers that hinder NGOs’ ability to operate. The current NGO law is a restrictive legal framework that grants the government enormous discretionary powers to dissolve NGOs and interfere in their internal affairs. Vague legal grounds such as “threatening national unity” or “violating public order or morals” enable authorities to reject an organization’s registration. Political activities, including advocacy or lobbying, are strictly forbidden. Further, the law permits government officials to appoint acting members to an organization’s board of directors and request copies of official papers and minutes. In late 2015, the Ministry of Social Solidarity expanded the use of Law 84 to require all entities engaged in non-governmental work to reregister with the ministry or face possible legal action. Prominent rights group, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, attempted to register under the law but still faces bureaucratic hurdles, while the Egyptian Democratic Academy successfully registered but its staff have become the subject of investigation and travel bans.

Egypt’s anti-protest law curtails Egyptians’ freedom of assembly and compromises the political space in which CSOs can effectively organize. The law bans unregistered gatherings of 10 or more people in both public and private places and puts excessive burdens on acquiring permissions necessary to demonstrate.  As part of the law, organizations wishing to stage a peaceful sit-in or strike can be denied permits on loosely-defined grounds like “hampering the interests of citizens.”

Egypt’s 2014 counterterrorism law’s language allows the government to silence its critics in addition to combating extremism. It defines a terrorist act as “disturbing public order and social peace” and “harming national unity,” and imposes hefty fines for “false reporting” on militant attacks and counterterror operations. This law diminishes judicial oversight in the detention of suspects and imperils the right to free expression by giving authorities wide-reaching powers to monitor phone calls and online exchanges when investigating terror cases.

An amendment to the country’s penal code in 2014 stiffens the punishment for any Egyptian receiving foreign funding, a vital source of support from the international community to Egypt’s embattled NGO community. Facing the potential of life in prison, these amendments to Article 78 are a serious threat to the work of Egyptian CSOs dependent on financing from international donors.

Addressing Escalating Tensions

Over the past year and a half, there have been increasing signs of an impending crackdown on Egypt’s civil society, and the situation is only worsening. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights studies warned in June 2015 that Egyptian authorities were investigating the organization, along with the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, and several other NGOs. This past March, authorities reopened the infamous legal case No. 173 of 2011, to a chorus of condemnation from western governments and international rights organizations, all warning against repressive measures against democracy activists. The reopening of the case appears to be an attempt to intimidate and likely prosecute domestic Egyptian groups that authorities are intent on silencing. It follows the conviction of staff from five international organizations in June 2013 on charges of operating unlicensed institutions in a case that has further demonized foreign funding to Egyptian civil society.

Egyptian media has reported that dozens of other organizations, both domestic and international, are being investigated while an investigating magistrate banned well-known human rights activists Hossam Bahgat and Gamal Eid from traveling and ordered their assets frozen. A hearing in the case was postponed on April 20, coinciding with a visit by Secretary of State John Kerry to Cairo. According to judicial sources, however, the prosecutor has added more defendants to the case including the founder of Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies Bahey al-Din Hassan and manager of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, Mostafa al-Hassan. Mozn Hassan, the head of Nazra for Feminist Studies, is also being investigated in connection with the case.    

The government has predominantly targeted rights based organizations likely due to concerns over their public documentation of violations, including on issues such as the conduct of police officers, torture, and forced disappearances. However if the government were to work with these organizations to raise public awareness about rights and laws, and train and teach public officials on how to better adhere to local and international human rights conventions, it could strengthen the relationship with civil society. It could also utilize civil society as a resource to improve governance and channel negative criticism into positive action. 

Egypt’s government sees civil society and public activism through the narrow prism of security. While to some extent this is understandable given the unrest that the country has seen over the past few years, further restricting NGOs will only hinder Egypt’s progress toward a stable and inclusive state. Civil society plays a key role in providing public services, raising awareness on key issues such as social rights, and in connecting the public to the government by publishing information about government activities and lobbying the government. Adding more restrictions to the current legal framework will prevent CSOs from playing this vital role. Meaningful reform of the NGO law will give CSOs and activists the freedom to carry out their activities and promote a stronger relationship between citizen and government.

Brian R. Braun is a Program Officer with the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) Middle East and North Africa Division and tweets at @BR_Braun.  (Disclaimer: IRI was convicted by an Egyptian court in 2013 for operating an unlicensed organization in what has become known as the NGO foreign funding case.)

Image: Photo: Ahmed Abd El-Fatah (Flickr)