Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has signed into law a contentious new bill to regulate non-governmental organisations, making it harder for charities to operate.
The measure restricts NGO activity to developmental and social work and introduces jail terms of up to five years for non-compliance.
Under the law, foreign non-governmental groups will have to pay up to $16,500 to start working in Egypt and renew their permit on a regular basis, a human rights lawyer said.
“The law eliminates civil society in Egypt, whether human rights or development organisations,” Gamal Eid said.
No organisation can carry out or publish the results of a study or survey without prior permission from the state. Those who violate the law could receive up to five years in jail and fines of up to one million Egyptian pounds (more than $55,000).
The law – which was criticised by the United Nations and New York-based Human Rights Watch – requires for a “national authority” including army and intelligence representatives to oversee the foreign funding of Egyptian non-governmental organisations and the activities of foreign non-governmental organisations.
The government had been working for years on a new law regulating NGOs, which rights groups feared would be more restrictive than Mubarak-era rules, but the bill drafted by lawmakers was so restrictive even cabinet ministers objected.
Mohamed Zaree, Egypt programme director at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, told Reuters news agency that the new law on NGOs was “the worst in history” and would practically ban NGOs from carrying out their work.
“The state is operating with no strategy or vision,” said Zaree, whose organisation will be one those affected.
He is already banned from travel and has been charged with “receiving funds from foreign entities to harm national security”.
Lawmakers say the measure is necessary to protect national security. The government has long accused human rights groups of taking foreign funds to sow chaos and several are facing investigation over their funding.
Several human rights defenders have been forbidden to travel outside Egypt and have seen their assets frozen as part of an inquiry into foreign funding to civil society groups started in 2011.
In March last year, the authorities said around 47,000 Egyptian non-governmental groups and more than 100 foreign ones were “working freely” in the country.