Morsi Government Seeks to Institutionalize Authoritarian Relapse with NGO Law

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In what has been the most serious affront to Egyptian civil society and prospects for democracy since the revolution and even well before then, last week brought the conviction of forty-three NGO workers and the closure of multiple NGO offices by court verdict. While a diplomatically expedient “resolution” may be pursued with the Egyptian government, a positive  response to this particular trial verdict would affirm the politicization of the judiciary and merely serve as a band-aid to a deep institutional disempowerment of civil society and the solidification of authoritarianism.

After a protracted, convoluted, and sensationalist trial, all forty-three American, Egyptian, European, and Arab NGO workers were found guilty of operating without a license and receiving foreign funding; each handed one to five year prison terms.  The court also ordered the closure of and assets seizure of several NGOs, including US organizations the National Democratic Institute (NDI), International Republican Institute (IRI), and Freedom House, all of which had long operated in legal limbo for years with the implicit consent of the government. The court’s verdict sparked international outrage and raises serious questions on a recently amended draft law on civil society and NGOs.

Until the Islamist-dominated Shura Council approves a new NGO law, the governing legislation continues to be law 84 (2002).  The law requires the licensing of any association of ten or more people by the Ministry of Social Solidarity, with a penalty of up to six months imprisonment for failure to comply.  The registration process is time-consuming and subject to the full discretion of the ministry, which can reject associations for vague reasons, ranging from posing a threat to “national security,” violations of “public order or morals,” or incorporation of “any political activity.” NGOs that obtain licenses are not allowed affiliation with any organization outside of Egypt unless they notify the Ministry sixty days in advance; similarly, NGOs are prohibited from “collect[ing] funds from abroad… except with the permission of the Minister.” The Ministry must be informed of any General Assembly meetings of the NGO at least fifteen days in advance, and it has the right to send a representative to attend any meeting. Finally, the Minister also has the authority to dissolve any NGO at any time for even a minor violation of the law.

Claiming to respond to popular demands for reform, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) recently proposed and submitted a new NGO draft law. The law incorporated many of the same Mubarak-era constraints and even strengthened restrictions on international funding while permitting arbitrary government and security apparatus intervention in the management of NGOs. The draft was considered a “step backwards” by the United States and flawed by all international standards. While a coalition of local NGOs attempted to produce their own draft law, these efforts were ignored by the government.

At the end of May, and without any dialogue leading up to the process, the Presidency produced its own version of the draft law, maintaining many of the draconian stipulations seen in the current Mubarak law as well as the Ministry of Social Affairs and Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) draft law last February. The law creates, among other things, a nine person “coordinating committee,” five of whom are government appointees, to oversee and control virtually all NGO activities, and a regional union to record the activity of all NGOs by geographic jurisdiction and report them to the Ministry of Social Solidarity.  According to presidential aide Khaled al-Qazzaz, the security and intelligence apparatus may "provide information” to the coordinating committee as part of an “interagency effort.”

 Under this version of the draft law, NGO registration is also not automatic through notification, in direct contradiction to Article 51 of the constitution, which states “citizens have the right to establish associations and civil institutions, subject to notification only.”

Furthermore, an NGO operating under the new proposed law must submit an annual budget report and deliver the decisions of its General Assembly to the Ministry. 

A foreign NGO must obtain a license from the coordinating committee to operate in Egypt, although it cannot partake in political party activities or violate “national sovereignty.”  Such vague stipulations have been used in the past – and with a precedent set by the NGO verdict, will likely continue to be used – to bar organizations from activities including election monitoring and legislative oversight. 

Additionally, foreign NGOs must report to the coordinating committee and regional union, submitting a semi-annual report, a financial report, and any other requested documentation.  The coordinating committee has the authority to object to any activity or funding, and if the NGO does not cooperate, it may be dissolved.

Article 63 of the new draft requires a domestic NGO wishing to obtain funds from foreign NGOs (that are not licensed to operate in Egypt) to apply for a license with the coordinating committee and provide extensive details on proposed activities.  Violation of such can be punished with hefty fines and the organization’s dissolution, notwithstanding harsher penalties in the penal code. While an NGO may theoretically pursue its activities in cooperation with a "foreign entity" and receive donations, such action is subject to ministerial approval. 

Recent versions of the draft law, including the aforementioned, reflect onerous provisions concerning registration and foreign funding that will severely cripple the vital work of NGOs (that depend heavily on foreign funding in light of the insufficiency of domestic support), as well as US and international democracy assistance programs.  The new draft law reflects increased government oversight and loopholes by which organizations can be shut, all of which are deeply at odds with international standards.  The insistence by the Morsi government on such a law highlights concerted efforts to control and constrict a key sector that was central in catalyzing the revolution, and is now even more central to achieving its goals.

Moreover, the obscure manner in which this version was drafted demonstrates a lack of government transparency, arbitrariness, and a disregard for consensus.  Multiple versions of the draft have been produced, timelines are disorganized, and there is little honesty about which draft is authoritative, all of which render independent domestic and foreign assessments impossible. The bungled process is eerily analogous to the ad-hoc crafting of Egypt’s constitution months ago.

While the NGO trial was highly politicized, the law on which it was allegedly adjudicated was and is fundamentally flawed, and the Muslim Brotherhood controlled executive and legislature are ensuring that its worst elements will continue to prevail.  Ongoing domestic and international pressure and mobilization are the only means by which to guarantee that this repressive law is not adopted.

Ultimately, a presidential pardon by Morsi for the forty-three defendants is the only way by which to remedy a travesty of justice which should never have been.  Such an act, however, would be that of a “magnanimous” dictator who is meanwhile exacerbating broken laws and ignoring the deep need for institutional reform, solidifying the Muslim Brotherhood’s grasp on power and sidelining the revolution’s principles.

Dina Guirguis is an Egyptian American attorney and activist.

Photo: Egypt Presidency

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