Cairo, Egypt - Human rights organisations are feeling the squeeze in Egypt as they accuse President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's government of using a 2002 law to "criminalise" their work.
At the start of his presidency on June 8, Sisi called on non-governmental organisations in Egypt to register under Law 84, subjecting their activities to government oversight. The law was first passed under former President Hosni Mubarak, but remained unenforced for over 10 years due to widespread opposition.
On August 31, 45 national and international NGOs issued a joint statement refusing to register by the September 2 deadline. The government has said that 89 foreign NGOs are currently authorised to work in the country, while 40,000 Egyptian organisations also operate.
[The Egyptian authorities are using the law] to orchestrate a witch-hunt against non-governmental organisations and put them under their thumb.
"If we register under this law, we agree [to] losing all our rights," said Nihal Saad Zaghloul, founder of Basma, an Egyptian civil society group that works on social issues like women's empowerment and sexual assault.
Reacting to the statement, Egypt's Ministry of Social Solidarity called on NGOs "to respect the democratic consultative process for the issuance of a new balanced law that supports development".
But Hassibe Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Amnesty International, said that the Egyptian authorities were using the law "to orchestrate a witch-hunt against non-governmental organisations and put them under their thumb".
"The government must withdraw the requirement for compulsory registration of non-governmental organisations under the current law, which is contrary to international human rights standards," Sahraoui said in a press release.
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The law empowers the government and Egyptian security agencies to dissolve groups and refuse licenses to new groups they deem a threat to national security. It would allow officials to inspect the premises of any group engaging in NGO work.
The proposed legislation would also require organisations to obtain permission in advance from an Egyptian committee, composed of representatives from the Ministry of Interior and the intelligence service, before carrying out any activity. Members of organisations accused of violating the law could be sentenced to a minimum of one year in prison, and a fine of approximately $14,000.
Since Egypt's 2011 revolution, three drafts of the law were prepared in an attempt to modify the 2002 version, according to the Ministry of Social Solidarity. But none of these drafts resulted in a new law, as a result the 2002 version is being enforced. The government said that it would finalise a draft "in line with the 2014 constitution" that "would respond to the needs of the Egyptian people and fulfil their aspirations, as well as ensure their cohesion".
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Under the law, international organisations will be obliged to seek permission from the Egyptian government before undertaking any activity in the country. This restriction comes after researchers from Human Rights Watch (HRW) were denied entry to Egypt in August, where they intended to release a report on the 2013 mass killing of protesters in Cairo.
According to the New York-based group, the NGO law "gives the government the powers to shut down any group at will, freeze its assets, confiscate its property and block funding" and also "allows the government to deny requests to affiliate with international organisations".
"There's no way that an organisation can register under Law 84 and still be considered 'independent' from the government," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at HRW.
"Even if [organisations] somehow manage to register in the country, they will have to ask for licenses and permissions for any step they make," said Mohamed Zaree, programme manager at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), one of the groups that signed onto the refusal letter.
"This bill would reserve seats on the coordinating committee for representatives from both the Ministry of Interior as well as the state security apparatus, neither of which have been reformed following the revolution in 2011," Zaree said.
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Article 75 of Egypt's constitution - ratified in January 2014 - states that "all citizens shall have the right to form non-governmental associations and foundations on a democratic basis". It also states that "such associations and foundations shall have the right to practise their activities freely, and administrative agencies may not interfere in their affairs or dissolve them".
[The law] is the latest indication of Egypt's continued slide towards deeper autocracy.
But since the Egyptian military's ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, human rights groups have reported a crackdown on many organisations, especially those with alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt labelled the group a terrorist organisation in December 2013, and all its activities were banned in the country.
Shortly thereafter, the country's interim, army-backed government banned the April 6th movement, which had played a key role in the 2011 uprising. Meanwhile, the offices of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights have been raided twice since March.
"[The law] is the latest indication of Egypt's continued slide towards deeper autocracy. But since Egyptians have more pressing concerns, particularly regarding the economy, it will likely face more international than domestic blowback," said Eric Trager, a fellow at The Washington Institute and expert on Egyptian politics.
"The current regime believes that the main reason for Egypt's failure is that the state was weak, and it often equates a strong state with repressive domestic measures," Trager told Al Jazeera.
The NGO law will leave only the "narrowest space" for organisations to operate in Egypt, according to Joe Stork, HRW's Middle East and North Africa director. "This law is not about regulating non-governmental organisations," Stork said in a statement. "It is about throttling them and robbing them of their independence."
Source: Al Jazeera