A draft law banning independent NGOs could mean the end of civil society in Egypt.
A state of anger has dominated civil society in Egypt following the publication of a (now)* parliamentary-approved draft law on November 13, which would prohibit independent non-governmental organisations in Egypt. The law would affect 47,000 local and 100 foreign groups working in Egypt, according to a Human Rights Watch Report.
A number of parties and civil society organisations (CSO)s said the law aimed to end human rights and development activism, as well as charity action in Egypt and claimed that the draft law was passed without being discussed with CSOs.
"The law, as published, will end the Egypt's civil society life in general, not just human rights,” said Hasan Azhari, a human right activist from Freedom of Thought and Expression Organisation. He stressed that the draft law’s provisions are arbitrary and it is difficult for any organisation or association to align their positions accordingly, which means the closure of CSOs.
Cracking down on CSOs
A statement issued by a number of political parties and human rights organisations emphasized that the new draft law is, to a large extent, similar to the bill that was put forward by the government in 2011 and republished on news websites in September, and was rejected by human rights organisations. The current "Reople's Representatives" bill however goes even further than its predeceser.
The solidarity statement stressed that the parliament draft law includes freedom-restricting sanctions up to imprisonment of five years and fines up to one million pounds if an association conducts opinion polls or field research or practices civil work without registration, in accordance with law. The draft law also prohibits cooperation with any international organisation, including United Nations agencies, without obtaining the necessary approval.
The draft law also considers a relocation of an association, without notifying the competent administration, as a misdemeanour, punishable by up to one year in prison. In a serious precedent of an “associations law”, the proposed text considers the person in charge of the actual management of an association as criminally responsible for any breach of the management’s work.
End of CSOs?
Azhari of Freedom of Thought and Expression Organisation emphasized that his organisation, like many human rights organisations, will try to survive, but with this law, closure would be the solution in light of the arbitrary punishments mentioned.
Azhari pointed out that access to justice is not the best solution, citing the Demonstration Law that has been considered in front of the Constitutional Court for nearly three years, so far without success. He stressed that they have not taken a final decision on the organisation’s closure or future action as a number of human rights organizstions are communicating with each other and the decision will be collective, not individual.
Azhari stressed that a more aligned draft law submitted by a number of CSOs to the Ministry of Social Justice and Solidarity disappeared and this draft law, with its restrictions, appeared instead.
Lawyer Mustafa Abu al-Hasan, executive director of Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, confirmed that the insistence and challenge to go ahead and defend the oppressed is the way to confront the unjust law, adding that the law aims to eliminate human rights and civil society movements in Egypt.
He pointed out that a number of SCOs will approach the judiciary following the adoption of the law. The Demonstration Law was referred to the Constitutional Court to adjudicate its constitutionality, as it was issued illegally, and the case has not been settled yet. The same will apply to the associations and foundations law, but the judicial route continues to be the hope of some CSOs.
Abu al-Hasan emphasised that all peaceful means "to challenge" the law and a government that wants to nationalise the civil society are allowed, including sit-ins, demonstration or judiciary, stressing that Hisham Mubarak Law Center will remain open to the oppressed.
Nevin Obaid, a founder of the New Women's Association, said the law will pave the way for the elimination of development, charity, service and civil work, and the presence of associations providing services to residents of villages and hamlets will be almost impossible.
She added that it is impossible to align the situation to the draft law and very hard to work in accordance with its terms and thus no foundation or association can work under the law. The closure decision has not been taken so far, but some meetings and discussions are taking place between associations and human rights organisations to confront the law.
Obaid stressed that resorting to the judiciary is indispensable because it is the only way so far available for CSOs in an attempt to stop the law, but only after it has been passed and adopted it.
Lawyer Mohammed Baqir, from Adalah Law Center, refused the judicial route in case of the law’s adoption, stressing that it is useless, citing the Demonstration Law that has been considered by the courts for years. Its constitutionality has not been adjudicated yet even though it was issued illegally. The Associations and Foundations Law was issued by the Parliament, the legislature, and thus the judicial way to oppose it is not possible. Baqir emphasized that challenging the law, which targets the civil society in Egypt, is the solution and peaceful means are the only way.
Escalation through the judiciary
"In July 19, 2016, the Ministry of Social Justice and Solidarity submitted a draft law on associations and foundations. CSOs had several reservations about some articles, which reduced and even disabled the work of civil society,” said Rania Fahmy, spokesperson for the Child Rights Coalition that includes a number of associations working on childhood in Egypt. “On November 13, the Parliament submitted an amendment to the government's bill. Comparing all articles of the two bills, the latter stifles CSOs and close the field of civil work in Egypt."
Fahmy stressed that CSOs work under extremely harsh conditions and try hard to promote the segments of society ignored by the State in terms of human rights and development. Instead of facilitating their work, controls were put to monitor, evaluate and hold these organisations accountable, thus hampering their work. The Parliament draft law came to question and accuse the local and foreign CSOs working in Egypt and its articles have a security nature.
Fahmy added that the escalation by CSOs would be through the judiciary. However, a number of civil society organisations are trying to counter the draft law before its approval because its adoption would mean the elimination of Egypt civil society as a whole, including human rights, charity and development organizations, putting all of them in the hands of the state.