Democracy and civil society activists in Egypt are calling for international support to prevent the passage of a new law that will impose politically punitive and disabling regulations on non-governmental organizations.
The proposed restrictions come at a time of renewed political ferment following President Hosni Mubarak’s recent illness and “the most serious challenge yet to the Mubarak family’s grip on power” arising from the potential presidential candidacy of Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
“Egypt’s political order has produced a system that seems impervious to change, writes Steven Cook. But with a thousand people joining ElBaradei’s Facebook page every ten minutes his candidacy could be a catalyst for change, especially since he appears to be “the sort of political entrepreneur who can exploit the gap between regime rhetoric — about economic growth, political reform, and social progress — and empirical reality, which is dominated by political repression, poverty, substandard schools, and crumbling national infrastructure.”
The would-be challenger is taking his campaign to the streets, mobilizing opposition groups and public opinion, and emerging “as a moral force” by distancing himself from the political establishment.
While its political system is sclerotic, Egypt’s civil society remains relatively vibrant, despite an NGO law considered “one of the most restrictive in the world”. Civil society is fairly robust, partly because the current law “is not so much restrictive as it is discretionary,” notes the International Center for Not-for-profit Law, giving officials considerable arbitrary powers to intervene in NGO affairs.
“In practice, however, the full weight of this authority is brought to bear only against organizations and individuals that cross the government’s ‘red lines’ in pushing for social reform and political liberalization,” ICNL notes.
But the new provisions threaten to shackle civil society more effectively and consistently.
The draft law proposes further constraints, including a requirement that human rights and opposition groups registered as civic companies re-register as foundations or associations. This will entail compliance with more restrictive provisions, including limited access to foreign funds and affiliation with foreign civil society groups. Many groups are incorporated as civic companies in order to circumvent restrictions applied to NGOs.
NGOs will be limited to working in a maximum of two areas of activity – to be defined by the Ministry of Social Solidarity; the minimum number of founders of any new association is raised from 10 to 20, making it more difficult to register new groups; new associations must demonstrate that they have available funds of at least 100,000 Egyptian Pounds (US$18,000) to register.
Civil society groups will also be obliged to join official federations in addition to reporting to the Ministry of Social Solidarity.
“This will hijack the organizations’ free will and subjugate it to the will of the government,” said Bahey el-Din Hassan of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and a signatory of a statement opposing the proposed law as an attempt to militarize NGO-state relations.
Provisions from the current NGO law will now be applied to civic companies, including mandatory registration, official approval of any affiliation with foreign civil society groups, restrictions on foreign funding and domestic fundraising which will continue to require the approval from the Ministry of Social Solidarity; and criminal penalties of up to a year’s imprisonment for even minor violations of the law.
The draft NGO law, recently leaked to the independent newspaper Al Dustoor, could become law as soon as next month, but is more likely to pass parliament in June or November.
When there is already a demonstrable “need for a more progressive legal and regulatory environment for NGOs in the Arab world”, Egypt’s proposed law would foster further democratic regression across the region.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently announced a new Civil Society 2.0 project to empower grassroots civil society groups across the Middle East. If she is “serious about what she said, writes Cairo-based analyst Issandr El Amrani, “she should re-examine policy toward Egypt and make sure Cairo is getting the message, starting by resuming support to unregistered NGOs and stating her opposition to this bill.”