Egypt’s draft NGO law draws fierce criticism
Rights groups have decried the draft legislation, arguing that it is even more restrictive than the current Mubarak-era Law 84, Shahira Amin writes from Cairo.
30 Apr 13

A controversial draft law governing the activities of non-governmental organizations, NGOs, operating in Egypt has come under fire from rights groups who denounce it as “a continuation of the repressive policies of the toppled regime” and fear it would “curb the freedom of Egypt’s civil society.”

Despite the criticism, the draft law — which was prepared by the Islamist-dominated Shura Council’s Human Development Committee — has been given preliminary approval by the Council, the upper house of Egypt’s parliament endowed with legislative powers until the election of a new People’s Assembly or lower house.

Egypt's government is considering a draft NGO law. Photo: Shutterstock

Egypt’s government is considering a draft NGO law. Photo: Shutterstock

If passed, the legislation would put the 13,000 or so local and international NGOs operating in Egypt under full government control, requiring security agencies to grant them licenses and monitor their funding. According to the draft law, a committee comprising members of the Interior Ministry and Egypt’s National Security Agency would decide whether NGOs may or may not receive funding from abroad. Furthermore, those allowed foreign funding would not have direct access to the money as transfers would get deposited in a government bank account, ensuring that all transactions take place under close government scrutiny. NGOs would also need the committee’s permission to transfer funds abroad and would be barred from conducting surveys and from profiting from their organization’s activities.
Rights groups and campaigners have decried the draft legislation, arguing that it is even more restrictive than the current Mubarak-era Law 84 (issued in 2002) which was designed to limit and control the operations of NGOs. The draft law would severely hamper the work of NGOs, they say.

“The draft law would make it almost impossible for NGOs to operate in Egypt,” lamented Heba Morayef, director of Human Rights Watch, Egypt in comments published in state-sponsored daily al-Ahram.

Freedom House, a U.S.-based NGO working to promote democracy and human rights has also expressed deep concern over the draft legislation, stating “that the proposed bill would radically restrict the space for local and international NGOs working on issues of human rights and democracy.” It called on the Egyptian government to demonstrate its commitment to democratic reform by replacing the current draft law with one that promotes freedom of association.

“The legislation blatantly contradicts the Egyptian government’s stated goal of moving the country toward democracy,” Freedom House President David Kramer said in a statement posted on the NGO’s website. He also urged the international community to link political and financial support for Egypt with the Egyptian government’s actions to advance progress toward democracy.

Lawmakers and some members of the liberal opposition have defended the bill, however, arguing that it was “necessary to protect Egypt’s national security interests. ”

“Some of the NGOs are undercover espionage cells secretly promoting a US-Israeli agenda”, Nagi El-Shehabi, a member of the Generation Party has been quoted by al Ahram as saying.

The allegations echo similar accusations made last year by then-Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Aboul Naga against foreign-funded non-profit organizations working to promote democracy and human rights in Egypt. Aboul Naga had claimed that the pro-democracy organizations were working “to spread chaos in the country”. Her remarks came after a vicious crackdown on NGOs — both local and foreign, including Freedom House by security forces. In December 2011, security raids were conducted on 17 NGO offices and hundreds of their staffers were threatened with investigations. Meanwhile five mostly-US funded NGOs working to promote human rights and democracy were accused of “receiving illegal funding from foreign governments, including the US ” and of “operating in Egypt without a license”–charges that were denied by the NGOs.

Forty-three NGO workers were prosecuted including 17 foreign nationals who left the country some weeks later, save for one defendant who chose to remain and face trial. A verdict in the landmark case is expected on June 4, 2013. While state-run media lambasted the NGOs, accusing them of plotting to divide the country and threatening Egypt’s national security, rights campaigners insisted that the widely-publicized NGO case “was politically motivated”. Bahieddin Hassan, Director of the Cairo Centre for Human Rights Studies, meanwhile suggested that the foreign NGOs were attacked “to intimidate local NGOs and undermine their work.”

The chilling NGO court case also succeeded in fueling suspicions among an already skeptical public of foreign organizations operating in the country, consolidating the government’s view that the NGOs’ activities were tantamount to “foreign interference in the country’s internal affairs”. The trial of the pro-democracy activists (which has dragged on since), meanwhile coincided with public service announcements that were broadcast on Egyptian TV channels, warning citizens against talking to foreigners “because they might be spies.” Although the TV spots were quickly removed after fierce denunciations by critics that they were “fueling xenophobia”, they unleashed a wave of angry attacks by demonstrators on tourists and foreign journalists covering protests against military rule during the country’s turbulent transitional period.

Meanwhile, Essam El Erian, a former Presidential advisor and a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, FJP, has lauded the draft law as “an attempt to curb corruption promoted by some international NGOs.”

“Some of the money given by the US to those NGOs has gone to spreading corruption in the country,” he said, adding that the bill would ensure “greater transparency of NGOs’ activities and funding”.

The storm raised by rights campaigners and NGOs over by the contentious draft legislaion has forced Freedom and Justice Party MPs, who hastily pushed the draft law through at a Shura Council session last week, to back down. After the session during which the draft law was “approved in principle” by lawmakers in parliament, Shura Council Speaker, Ahmed Fahmy — a Muslim Brotherhood member — affirmed that “the Council was still willing to review an alternative NGO law drafted by the government”.

Although no details have yet been released about the government-drafted law, rights groups and activists hope that the alternative legislation — which MPs have promised to discuss in parliament “within days” — will be free from the restrictions and tight control on funding and licensing that threaten to cripple Egypt’s civil society (if the MPs draft law is passed).

“We want an NGO law that would empower civil society organizations contribute to the development of this country not one that undermines their work”, Omar El-Sharif, Deputy Justice Minister, told a parliamentary session last week. Many are holding their breath.

See more coverage: Shahira Amin | Egypt

By Shahira Amin

Shahira Amin is a freelance Egyptian journalist who quit state run TV during the Jan 25th revolution in protest at the biased coverage of the Tahrir events.