“Informed diplomatic sources in Cairo and Washington say that the recent telephone conversation between US President Barack Obama and President Mohamed Morsi included what some qualified as ‘a firm reminder’ of the need for Egyptian authorities to act promptly to secure the rights of minorities and to empower civil society,” Al-Ahram reports.
US Secretary of State John Kerry is also expected to raise proposed curbs on Egyptian non-governmental groups and the ongoing prosecution of NGO activists (above) when he meets with senior officials, politicians, business leaders, and civil society activists in Cairo on Sunday.
The ruling Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has drafted a highly restrictive law that “would cripple civil society …. and mark an alarming shift by the Brotherhood toward the methods of the ousted Hosni Mubarak,” activists fear.
The draft law confirms that the Islamist group and Mubarak-era officials of the Ministry of Social Affairs share an identical vision for “nationalizing civil society,” according to the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (above).
Egypt’s government has been agitating for the US to invite Morsi to Washington, but that should be put on hold until the regime demonstrates a more liberal and inclusive approach to governance, say the co-chairs of the bipartisan Working Group on Egypt.
“That means supporting a law that meets international standards on regulating civil society, allowing watchdog organizations to operate freely and finally resolving the controversial status of foreign and foreign-funded NGOs,” according to the Brookings Institution’s Robert Kagan and the Hariri Center’s Michele Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.
There are at least five draft CSO laws currently in circulation and all but one prepared by a civil society coalition are restrictive, according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. The two drafts under serious consideration are sponsored by the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs (MoISA) and another by the Freedom and Justice party.
The MoISA draft has a number of restrictions that will impede the work of civil society, says ICNL. The draft law:
· Limits the purposes and activities of associations and foundations. Civil society organizations (“CSOs”) are only permitted to work toward “humanitarian and development goals” (Articles 1(1) and 9). CSOs are further prohibited from conducting “field research, opinion polls, or projects in the field of civil work [????? ??????] without obtaining the approval of the concerned authorities” (Article 11(5)). Organizations “threatening the national unity,” “calling for discrimination between citizens,” or undermining “public order and morals” are also prohibited (Article 11). All of these vague terms are undefined, leaving government officials wide latitude to determine that a CSO’s purposes or activities are impermissible.
· Mandates registration of all CSOs, and imposes criminal penalties on individuals who establish unregistered groups (Preamble Article 3, Article 80, and Article 82).
· May eliminate the legal basis for many human rights organizations as well as other groups. Egyptian human rights leaders have opted to register for-profit and not-for-profit “civil companies” rather than associations or foundations in order to exercise their rights to freedom of association. Under the draft law, the government can close and seize the assets of any entity that carries out “any activity of civil associations and foundations” without registering as an association or foundation, threatening the existence of many organizations (Preamble Article 3, Article 80(6)).
· Significantly curtails the operations of foreign organizations in Egypt. A powerful new “Coordinating Committee” made up of representatives from the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of International Cooperation, the National Security Agency, and several other government agencies will meet once a month “to decide on all matters relating to foreign non-governmental organizations in Egypt and foreign funding” (Article 57).
o Foreign CSOs may not conduct any operations or activities in Egypt without approval of the Committee (Article 56). Even if the Committee permits a foreign CSO to operate, it can limit the CSO’s activities, or amend or cancel its permission to operate at any time (Article 58).
o Foreign government entities are prohibited from conducting any “activities or projects” without approval from the Committee (Article 59).
o Foreign CSOs that “receive government funding, directly or indirectly,” or promote “the policies of a political party” are flatly prohibited from working in Egypt (Article 60).
· Restricts the ability of Egyptian CSOs to receive or provide international funding. Egyptian CSOs are prohibited from receiving or providing international funding without the approval of the Coordinating Committee (Article 58) or the passage of sixty days without a response to a permit request (Article 16).
· Allows “imprisonment for a term of not less than one year” and fines of up to £E 100,000 for a wide range of violations of the law. These include “aiding” a foreign CSO “in the exercise of any activity in Egypt” without approval from the Committee and conducting “field research or opinion polls… without the approval of the concerned authorities.” Such severe penalties will create a strong disincentive to associational activity (Articles 80 – 83).
· Permits inappropriate interference in the internal operations of CSOs. Government officials are allowed to inspect offices and records without justification (Article 20); order the cancellation of any internal administrative decision deemed “contrary to the law or [the CSO’s] bylaws” (Article 24); and object to and remove from internal ballots any candidate for the CSO’s Board of Directors (Article 35).
· Allows an administrative court broad discretion to dissolve an organization. A CSO can be dissolved, for example, if the court determines that the CSO is unable “to achieve the purposes for which it was created” or has received “funds from a foreign entity in violation of the provisions” of the law (Article 42).
· Raises the minimum number of members to register an association from ten to twenty, and imposes for the first time a minimum endowment of £E 250,000 for foundations, making it more difficult to establish new CSOs in Egypt (Articles 1(2) and 1(5)).
The FJP draft is expected to be sent to the Shura Council by the end of this week, says ICNL which notes that Egypt’s new constitution empowers the Council to enact laws when the lower house of parliament is dissolved – as it currently is.
But Egyptian civil society groups will urge the Shura Council to defer consideration of the draft until the Parliament is elected and seated, says ICNL, noting that international support for this effort will be crucial as the Shura Council has on at least one occasion postponed consideration of a controversial law following international and domestic criticism.
The Brotherhood’s hardline stance will come as no 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 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.