Egypt’s ruling Islamists are planning to “take the ‘non’ out of ‘nongovernmental organizations’ and ‘nationalize’ civil society,” activists fear.
“A government minister and member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has proposed a highly restrictive law that rights activists say would cripple civil society groups in Egypt and mark an alarming shift by the Brotherhood toward the methods of the ousted Hosni Mubarak…. whose government saw independent groups as a threat and sought to restrict their actions and funding,” according to reports:
Last week, Mohamed Ali Bishr, a prominent Muslim Brotherhood and FJP member and minister of local development, proposed a new draft that …. would interfere in the details of how NGOs operate and organize, and would tightly restrict the foreign funding that rights organizations in Egypt rely on. For the first time in history it would give a legal role to Egypt’s security apparatus in overseeing civil society organizations….
The FJP draft law calls for foreign funding to be tightly restricted. It requires organizations to receive prior approval from a government minister before they can receive funds, and the minister doesn’t have to justify a decision to say no. Already, under the current law, authorities are rejecting or holding up many organization’s applications for approval to receive funds from abroad
If provisions resembling the draft become law,“NGOs will not work actively. They will work under the pressure of the law and the government; they will not be healthy NGOs. There’s no hope for those that work in human rights or criticize the government on human rights to obtain foreign funding,” says Mohamed Zaree, Egypt program manager at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS).
The Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs sent a letter to the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights saying that local NGOs are not allowed to engage with “international entities” without the approval of the “security bodies, ” reportedly on the instructions of the prime minister.
The EOHR expressed “intensive worry for the deteriorating situation of all the international and local civil society organizations in Egypt and the fund-drying measures that are badly affecting the defense of human rights.”
An earlier, less restrictive draft law “was introduced by the Muslim Brotherhood in different political circumstances,” says Bahey el Din Hassan (above), head of CIHRS, when the military was in control. But the Brotherhood and its FJP are less inclined to compromise because “they have everything. So why would they make concessions to civil society? This is what changed.”
Civil society groups are especially alarmed about an article in the proposed draft that specifies that all NGO funds except membership dues should be considered as “public funds.”
The provision takes the “non” out of “nongovernmental organizations” and “nationalizes” civil society, says Zaree, a program manager at CIHRS.
Activists fear that the proposed ministerial veto could be used to silence NGOs organizations working on politically sensitive or contentious issues.
“This gives you a sense that they look at civil society as a branch of the government. It’s not independent,” says Hassan:
Hassan says the law means ministry officials can come to an NGO’s offices at any time, review anything they want – related to activities or finances – and refer the employees on the spot to the prosecutor. …..The law would also set up a committee to approve the registration of international NGOs. That committee can reject the registration request of any organization if it decides that Egyptian society is not in need of its work – for example, if the committee members decide there is no need for investigating torture or raising political awareness.
The Brotherhood’s hardline stance will come as less of a surprise to those observers who recall the Islamist group supported the former regime’s crackdown on NGOs, imposing a travel ban on several foreign nationals, including U.S. citizens, as part of its prosecution of Egyptian and foreign activists, following security forces’ raids on seventeen pro-democracy NGOs.
The government insists that “the presidency is keen on building consensus on the associations law. No NGOs law has been submitted to the Shura Council [Egypt's legislative body] yet,” but activists believe the damage has already been done.
“The problem is that once you adopt language that is very restrictive, even when you attempt to revise it, the revisions tend to be limited,” says Heba Morayef, Egypt director for Human Rights Watch. “The first draft is very significant.”
The proposal to outlaw foreign-funded NGOs would immediately disable many Egyptian groups working on human rights, corruption and other democracy-related issues, including partners of Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute, that were among the groups targeted in last year’s crackdown and which receive support from the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy.