The Daily Star, 2/9/2009
The Egyptian government has shown remarkable skill in responding to pressures for democratic reform at home and abroad through measures that seemingly address those demands while actually consolidating authoritarian rule. A bill modifying Egypt's law regulating non-governmental organizations, expected to be introduced before the current parliamentary session ends this summer, falls squarely within that framework. Although the text of the bill most likely will not be made public before its formal introduction, some provisions have emerged through public remarks by members of the drafting committee and ensuing discussion in the NGO community. While it appears that some of the objectionable aspects of the current law will be improved in the new bill, other provisions - including a possible mechanism to choke off foreign funding to certain NGOs - are emerging that would have dire consequences.
Egypt's current law 84 of 2002 governing non-governmental organizations, widely regarded as one of the most restrictive in the Arab world, has been a thorn in the side of Egyptian NGOs. It has also served as a model for other Arab governments attempting to expand control over civil society. The current law requires the licensing of any association of 10 or more people from the Ministry of Social Solidarity, with a penalty of up to six months imprisonment for failure to comply, violating international norms of freedom of association. The registration process is time-consuming and subject to the full discretion of the Ministry of Social Solidarity, which can reject associations for vague reasons such as if the purposes of the association are deemed "threatening [to] national unity," violating "public order or morals," or including "any political activity."
NGOs that do obtain licenses are not allowed to "join, participate with, or be affiliated to" any organization outside of Egypt unless they notify the Ministry of Social Solidarity 60 days in advance and do not receive any objections. Similarly, NGOs are prohibited from "collect[ing] funds from abroad ... except with the permission of the Minister." The Ministry of Social Solidarity must be informed of any General Assembly meetings of the NGO at least 15 days in advance, and it has the right to send a representative to attend any meeting. The minister also has the authority to dissolve any NGO at any time for even a minor violation of the law, and while an NGO may appeal the decision, administrative cases can take several years to be resolved in Egypt's backlogged court system.
A coalition of more than 150 NGOs (organized by the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies) has weighed in with its own proposed amendments to the current law. They have sought to redress what are considered the most odious provisions of the current law related to registration, the ban on political activities, and excessive governmental interference with foreign funding. They have also expressed concerns about the arbitrary manner in which the current law is being administered, as well as the apparent control the security apparatus wields over NGOs under the umbrella of the Ministry of Social Solidarity.
Amendments suggested by the NGO coalition include replacing the current mandatory registration system with the French-Lebanese model of notification, in which an NGO simply declares its existence to a court and does not need to seek permission to begin its activities. The coalition is also pushing for a narrower definition of political activities prohibited to NGOs, decreased security intervention in NGO activities, and more lenient foreign funding practices. From what can be gleaned about the ministry's proposed bill, it has some positive points and at least one potentially fatal drawback. The bill might be more lenient than the existing law on registration and the ban on political activities, and might do away with the current cumbersome dispute resolution mechanism in favor of a more central role by the Administrative Courts. It might also provide for local and national NGO council membership to be determined through elections rather than appointment.
The fly in the ointment, however, is the likely much greater government control over foreign financing of NGOs. Government officials have remarked on the need for a "strict governmental monitoring mechanism" for all organizations, and particularly those that "misuse" funds. This could take the form of prohibiting direct grants to NGOs by the United States and other foreign donors, and insisting that such assistance go through a government mechanism of some kind. In addition, civil society activists fear that the new law might increase the role of security organizations in monitoring NGOs and make that role more explicit.
The simple reality is that Egyptian NGOs working in civil and human rights cannot collect enough funds domestically and depend largely on foreign funding. Stricter government control of such funding would not only disrupt their work; it would constitute a major shock, possibly a death knell, to any US or other democracy assistance programs seeking direct engagement with Egyptian organizations. If the bill is passed with the strict funding provision, Egyptian reformers will find themselves once again contending with a faade of progressive legal reform which in reality retains and perhaps even strengthens governmental control over their activities.
Unless the US and other foreign donors object vociferously and soon, it is likely that Egypt's Parliament will rubber stamp the ministry's proposed amendments to the current NGO law within a few months. Such a move would signal a dangerous retreat for democracy and human rights funding and support not just for Egypt but for the entire region, as Egyptian laws are emulated throughout.
Dina Guirguis is executive director of the Washington-based Voices for a Democratic Egypt, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Egypt. This commentary is reprinted with permission from the Arab Reform Bulletin. It can be accessed online at: www.carnegieendowment.org/arb, (c) 2009, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.