Why is Egypt’s new NGO law controversial?

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi signed a law that heavily restricts the operations of more than 47,000 NGOs.

Riot police officers stand during a protest against restrictions on the press and to demand the release of detained journalists, in front of the Press Syndicate in Cairo
Those who do not comply with the law can face up to five years of imprisonment [File: Reuters]

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi signed into effect a law on Tuesday that restricts the operations of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Egypt, many of them involved in human rights work.

The law strictly controls NGOs, including those in the realm of social and development work, and makes it difficult for charities to deliver services. It bans domestic and foreign groups from engaging in rights work or anything that can be said to harm national security, public order, public morals or public health.

Egypt’s civil society groups have criticised the bill since the Egyptian parliament approved it in November 2016 and speculated whether it will ever come into effect. For months, the president held off on signing and enacting the law, which was never presented to the public for debate.

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The new bill, which was criticised by rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW), imposes fines of more than $55,000 and up to five years of imprisonment on those who do not comply with it.

There are currently more than 47,000 NGOs, some foreign-funded, which operate across Egypt. Under the new law, civil society organisations will be subject to security intervention.

Foreign NGOs will be required to pay up to $16,500 to start operations in Egypt, and are required to renew permits on a regular basis.

Centres of all types would need to re-register themselves as NGOs under the ministry of social affairs, regardless of the services they offer. The law obliges organisations to work according to the state’s plan and developmental needs.

The 87-article law introduces a state regulatory committee –  the National Authority for the Regulation of Non-Governmental Foreign Organizations –  whose mandate will include monitoring any NGO that receives foreign funding. It must also be notified about local funding.

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The authority, which will be formed by presidential decree, will include representatives from 10 bodies including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Interior, and members of the intelligence unit and the government’s money laundering unit.

Organisations will need permission from the authority to conduct fieldwork and publish findings.

The Trump administration has made clear that they will not put any pressure on Sisi to protect the rights of his citizens.

by Sarah Yerkes, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at HRW, previously said in a statement that “it would be a farce to say that Egypt allows ‘non-governmental’ organisations since all would be subject to the security agencies’ control.”

The bill also prohibits an organisation from establishing a headquarters office without prior written consent. Organisations that relocate headquarters from their originally registered address may face jail time and be subject to a fine of up to $30,000.

The law’s enactment comes at a time when Egypt is experiencing a media blackout and is under a state of emergency due to constant instability and waves of violence.

The country has seen a string of attacks against both government personnel and the Egyptian Coptic Christian minority over the past year.

In the latest wave of violence, at least 28 Copts were killed in an attack claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group while travelling to a monastery in the Minya province.

Earlier this month, ex-presidential candidate and human rights lawyer Khaled Ali was detained for allegedly “offending public decency”. Rights lawyers say the opposition leader and others who are potential presidential candidates, are being arrested ahead of the upcoming 2018 presidential elections.

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According to Sarah Yerkes, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Sisi’s attempt at controlling Egypt’s socio-political sphere at this time “was certainly influenced by what he perceives as a strengthened US-Egyptian relationship”.

Last month, Sisi travelled to Washington for the first time since taking office in 2014. Relations between the two nations had soured amid Sisi’s crackdown on opponents and Egypt’s human rights abuses. Since the visit, Egypt has been negotiating billions of dollars in aid to help revive its economy.

“The Trump administration has made clear that they will not put any pressure on Sisi to protect the rights of his citizens,” Yerkes told Al Jazeera.

“However, this [enactment] may be a miscalculation on Sisi’s part, as the primary critics of Sisi’s crackdown on human rights are Members of Congress who have the power to restrict US foreign aid to Egypt.”

Human rights activists and lawyers have said that the bill is one that eradicates the presence of civil society and that it is part of a wider government crackdown on organisations accused of threatening the country’s national security following the January 25 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-rule.

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In recent months, various centres were forcibly shut down by authorities without legal reasons.

Last February, the El Nadeem Centre, a prominent NGO that helps victims of violence and torture, had their doors sealed shut by Egyptian authorities, who did not cite a specific violation, while the centre was in the midst of fighting a legal battle against a year-old closure order.

Over the past year, several human rights groups and individuals have been questioned, barred from travelling, and had their assets frozen after accusations that they had accepted unauthorised foreign funding to destabilise the country. Some are still involved in an investigation dating back to December 2011, in which 43 NGO workers were convicted.

When former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by Sisi in the summer of 2013, public space in Egypt became increasingly restrictive. Since coming to power in 2014, Sisi’s government has imprisoned tens of thousands without charge and banned public protests by upholding legislation forbidding the gathering of 10 or more people without prior permission.

“What should be clear to the Egyptian public and the international community by now is that none of Sisi’s counterterror tactics have done anything to stop the pattern of attacks against minorities in Egypt,” said Yerkes.

Source: Al Jazeera