Eliot Benman
Last updated: 27 April, 2012

Egyptian civil society protests “oppressive” draft law

A coalition of 25 Egyptian NGOs has issued a statement condemning a draft law they say would place oppressive restrictions on civil society if passed.

The draft law was presented to the Egyptian Parliament by the Ministry for Insurance and Social Solidarity following last year’s crackdown on NGOs in Egypt.

The statement condemns the draft law as an attempt by the government to exercise direct control over civil society and limit the role of civil society organizations in Egyptian society.

“The undersigned human rights organizations warn Parliament against the adoption of this anti-civil society draft law, which is designed to undermine the already limited margin allowed for NGO activities ,” the statement says.

The law would replace law 84 of 2002, which has long been blasted by Egyptian civil society as a tool of the former regime to limit freedom of association.

“We were hopeful that after the revolution the law organizing civil society would be better than law 84 of 2002,”says Samir Bassem Director of the Egyptian Democratic Academy, an NGO that works to promote democratic values and one of organizations that issued the statement. “Freedom of association nowadays is violated by the law, but this draft law violates it even more.”

Following the revolution in 2011, former President Hosni Mubarak handed power to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) to administer the transitional period in the lead up to Presidential elections. The SCAF has since come under heavy criticism for its handling of the transitional period, and its commitment to handing over power to civilian authorities has been put in question. 

Tensions between the authorities and civil society grew in the aftermath of the revolution and came to a head in December 2011 when 10 pro-democracy and human rights NGO offices were raided by Egyptian authorities. Employees, among them 16 Americans and a number of other foreigners, were arrested and charged with accepting illegal foreign financing, operating without authorization and fermenting unrest. 

Critics of SCAF saw the crackdown as a way for the military council to punish human rights organizations for their role in the revolution and to divert attention away from its mismanagement of the transitional period. The crackdown and ensuing media storm rallied Egyptians around a consensus issue – denouncement of American foreign aid.

The raids led to a diplomatic crisis between Egypt and the US, with Washington threatening to cut off its annual aid package to Egypt if the dispute was not resolved.

On March 1, a travel ban was lifted on the American NGO workers, effectively allowing them to leave the country on a USD 5 billion bail posted by the US government. The move was met with outrage by the Egyptian media and Parliament.

As tensions surrounding foreign funded NGOs continue, the operating environment for Egyptian civil society has become increasingly restrictive, say NGO members, especially for organizations dealing in the fields of human rights and democracy. They accuse the Ministry of Insurance and Social Solidarity of having been uncooperative even before the diplomatic tensions with the US arose.

“After the revolution by two or three months, most of the civil society organizations didn’t know who to talk to,” recalls Bassem. “When they talked to the Ministry of Social Solidarity, they got problems. People in the Ministry were afraid to do anything or approve anything. SCAF looks at civil society organization as foreign spies.”

“They took this opportunity after the NGO controversy to issue a more oppressive law, in the name of national security,” says Mohamed Zaree of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, one of organizations that issued the statement condemning the draft law.

Signatories of the statement see vague references to ‘competent authorities’ in the legislation as an attempt to create legal grounds for intervention by the security apparatus in the regulation of civil society.

“They want these civil society organizations to be completely under their control,” says Bassem. “I think that it’s really the SCAF drafting the law, because civil society organizations have international relationships and they can’t be controlled.”

The statement points to several aspects of the law that would violate freedom of association. The draft law demonstrates “the government’s ambitions to integrate civil society organizations into the state apparatus,” according to the statement.

The law gives authorities broad grounds to dissolve associations or boards of directors, including if they believe that an association is not accomplishing its stated functions. In addition, every civil society association or foundation is required to register with the government and to have a representative in a governorate-based federation of NGOs. The federations would also include government representatives.

The draft law would also restrict organizations’ ability to carry out their activities, NGO members say. The draft law would place a ban on field research by civil society organizations, limit their activities to a single category, restrict their ability to fundraise and prevent them from receiving foreign funds. Civil society organizations would also be prohibited from undertaking political activities reserved to political parties as established by existing legislation.  

The draft law would also bar associations and NGOs from establishing memberships in or affiliations with any foreign networks unless approved by the government. 

Critics of the draft law also point to several articles they say are designed to discourage Egyptians from founding civil society organizations. The draft law would raise the minimum number of founding members to 20 from 10 and require an organization to possess a minimum of 100,000 Egyptian pounds (USD 16,519) in order to be licensed.

The draft law would also impose harsh penalties for violations, including up to one year in prison.

A coalition of NGOs recently presented a different version of the draft law to Parliament. Their version of the law rules out any role for the security apparatus in regulating the activities of NGOs.

“There is no role for the security services, everything is handled by the judicial system. So we changed the main philosophy of the current law,” says Zaree of the NGO version of the draft law.

Civil society organizations want a law that preserves civil society’s independence and adheres to international standards and precedent, says Bassem.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) also introduced its own draft of the law taking elements from both the NGOs and the Ministry’s versions of the draft law.

Some civil society organizations complain that the FJP’s version still contains vague language and restrictions on freedom of association.

Civil society organizations are hopeful that their version of the law will be adopted, since the human rights committees in both houses of Parliament, the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council, are headed by human rights activists.

Bassem points out that the Islamist majority in Parliament makes it unlikely that the Ministry’s version of the law will be passed unmodified.

“The Islamists and even Salafists need their own civil society organizations,” he says. “It’s not logical that they would make a law against themselves. The Muslim Brotherhood is a civil society organization.”