Understanding the Dangers of Egypt’s NGO Law

Mohamed Zarie, the director of Egypt’s program at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, doesn’t mince words when talking about Egypt’s new NGO law. He describes it as a death blow and a declaration of war. The law, which was approved in a record two weeks by the House of Representatives, imposes severe restrictions and tougher penalties for violators who could face up to five years in prison and hefty fines.

For the past several years, a new NGO law has been stalled amid multiple delays, dozens of drafts, and several years of back and forth between the government and NGOs. Abdel Hadi al-Kasaby, the head of the House of Representatives’ Social Services Committee, announced suddenly in November that he had secured signatures of support from 200 members of parliament for a new draft. Kasaby is a member of a loose parliamentary bloc—In Support of Egypt—that backs President Abdel-Fatah Sisi.

How the Law Was Approved

While the government has said it was not involved in the draft law presented by Kasaby, it did little to stop it or amend its controversial articles, claiming to be as surprised as the NGO community. In a matter of days, the State Council—which is tasked with reviewing all laws to ensure it does not contradict the country’s Constitution—sent it back to parliament, where it was easily approved with a two-thirds majority. Only a few MPs opposed the law and tried in vain to delay its approval, while warning of its dire consequences on nearly all 40,000 NGOs working in Egypt, not just those specialized in the fields of human rights and social issues like women’s rights.

In addition to the draft bill receiving overwhelming support in the House of Representatives, Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal also accused those within the parliament who opposed it of being foreign agents. He linked their opposition to the bill to the case in which hundreds of human rights activists are accused of receiving “foreign funding” to destabilize Egypt and divide the country.  Abdel-Aal reiterated a common conspiracy theory that many NGOs are part of a so-called ‘fourth-generation war’ that depends on non-traditional means to weaken Egypt’s integrity and stability and open it up to western influence.

This expression has been repeatedly used by Sisi himself, who often warns of Western interference in the region’s affairs through NGOs and other “foreign agents” or “people of evil” who receive training abroad to promote ideas such as democracy and human rights.

In an interview with the private daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, Kasaby echoed the same line as the president. He claimed that previous attempts to pass a similar law failed “because there are internal and external forces that prevented this from happening to maintain their interests and plots… There are those who receive money and use the NGOs as a cover to profit and harm national security. They created a state of chaos in the country over the previous years as a result of these evil plots.”

Asked if some of those NGOs he referred to aimed to push Egypt towards a similar fate as that of Syria and Iraq he replied: “Of course, they [NGOs] are one tool to create internal fighting within the country. Let us not forget attempts to create a split between the army and its people, sectarian strife, and other issues that harm the nation’s security. These NGOs were a cover for the strategy of creative chaos, and they received a lot of foreign funding to carry out those plots.”

It is likely these kinds of suspicions that led to an increased number of travel bans issued by the country’s prosecutor-general against several prominent human rights activists among them founders and members of prominent rights groups including Hossam Bahgat, Gamal Eid, Mohamed Zarie, Aida Seif Al-Dawla, Mozn Hassan, and Azza Soliman. These activists are also facing charges of illegally receiving foreign funding and some have had their banks assets frozen by court order.

The Law’s Restrictive Articles

At least 22 NGOs and a few political parties wrote an open letter to the president asking him to use his power not to approve the law, and to send it back to the parliament for further discussion and amendments. They said in the letter that the bill violates Egypt’s constitution and “Egypt’s international obligations on laws organizing the activities of NGOs.” The letter also warned of the negative social consequences this law would have on the majority of NGOs that offer services in the vital fields of education and health care at a time Egypt has been facing a dire economic crisis. As a result, led the government has taken unprecedented economic measures, reducing subsidies and devaluing the Egyptian pound which led to a sharp increase in prices.

The 22 NGOs attached a 13-page memo to the letter including the most objectionable articles in the law. Among their main concerns is a clause that places NGOs not just under the strict control of the Ministry of Social Affairs, as the case has been in the past, but with the added supervision of a newly created body: The National Department for Regulating the Activities of Foreign NGOs. This newly created department would be made up mainly of representatives from security agencies including the Ministry of Defense, the General Intelligence, and the Interior Ministry, as well as representatives from the Foreign Ministry, the Justice Ministry, and the Central Bank.

Although the name of this body reflects that it should only deal with foreign NGOs, it would also provide approval for any dealings between local and international NGOs—including funding and joint programs. The body would also have to be informed in advance of any requests by local NGOs to receive funding—even from local Egyptian donors. The body is mandated to make sure that the money obtained by local NGOs is spent in the fields it was donated for, and has the right to review their bank accounts.

“This new body will scare away many Egyptians from giving money to local NGOs because no one wants his or her name to be reviewed by security agencies or get into any sort of trouble. This law creates a new monster and sidelines the ministry of social affairs,” Magdy Abdel-Hameed—who heads the NGO, Egyptian Association to Encourage Public Participation—tells MENASource.

Rania Fahmy, who has been active with several NGOs that provide social services to impoverished communities, also points to the many bureaucratic hurdles that will significantly impede their work. She tells MENASource the newly formed body has to be notified 30 working days in advance of any donations coming in to NGOs from local sources, and donors cannot give more than 10,000 Egyptian pounds in cash. The rest must be received as checks cleared first by the administrative body overseeing NGOs. NGOs must also notify them three months in advance of money received from a foreign donor. Failing to get a response is considered a rejection.

The law could also seriously impede the creation of new NGOs. Currently, the Ministry of Social Solidarity requires 60 working days, or nearly three months, to approve new NGOs. If the ministry fails to respond within the three months, the NGO is considered legal and can begin its work. In the 2016 law, however, the ministry’s failure to respond indicates that the request has been rejected.

Kamal Abbas, a trade unionist who has been fighting for years to form independent syndicates, also points out that the law requires any new organization to pay 10,000 Egyptian pounds to register, making it increasingly difficult for NGOs on a shoestring budget to register. The NGO’s board members will also be required to present their financial records to the Ministry of Social Affairs for review, without considering that most of those working in the NGO field are doing this mainly as volunteers, and not with the aim of profiting, Abbas tells MENASource. Foreign NGOs who want to work in Egypt will have to pay 300,000 Egyptian pounds to get a license, according to the new law.

The law also ambiguously restricts the fields in which NGOs can serve, stating that they are prohibited from working in any fields that “threaten national security, public order, or public discipline and morals.” They also can’t be active in fields in which political parties or trade unions are active. This means NGOs cannot work in the fields of governance or political participation including raising political awareness, encouraging citizens to take part in elections, or organizing in syndicates and trade unions.

“Worse, are the penalties included in this law, toughening prison terms and imposing extremely hefty penalties for simple administrative violations such as conducting an opinion poll without prior approval, restructuring the board of directors, opening new branches, or even moving to a new office without informing the authorities first,” Abdel Hameed says. Violating any of these articles could be punished by prison terms ranging between one and five years, and a fine ranging between 50,000 to 1 million Egyptian pounds.

Farid Zahran, president of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, said that this new NGO law cannot be seen except in the framework of a wider crackdown on civil activities in Egypt— whether the work being done by political parties, NGOs, independent syndicates, or the media. In a news conference on December 3, he confirmed his party’s opposition to the law, together with a few other political parties, including Dostour, the Popular Socialist Alliance Party, and Mohamed Anwar Sadat’s Reform and Development Party. He said, “With the approval of this law, there are no more public spaces for activities in Egypt other than those approved by the government and that serve its agenda.” He also appealed to the president not to approve the law, although like all other speakers in the conference, he had little hope that this would happen.

“It cannot be a coincidence that we see sentences being issued against the chairman of the Press Syndicate, summoning the deputy chairman of the Doctors Syndicate for questioning over statements she made warning of shortages in medicine, the speedy approval of the NGOs law, and more and more orders issued to freeze the assets of human rights activists and banning them from traveling,” Zahran says. “These are all part of the general atmosphere that cracks down on all sorts of public freedoms.”

Khaled Dawoud is currently Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Al-Ahram Weekly, an English-language weekly published by Egypt’s oldest news establishment, Al-Ahram. He is also the former official spokesman of social-liberal Al-Dostour Party established by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei.

Image: A view of Egypt's parliament in session in November, 2016. (Parlmany)