Forty-five international and national human rights NGOs issued a joint statement Saturday refusing to register under a Mubarak-era law giving the government complete control over NGOs in the country.
The Egyptian Ministry of Social Solidarity placed an advertisement in state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram on 18 July giving all Egyptian and international nongovernmental organisations until 2 September to register under Law 84/2002.
The law empowers the government to shut down any group at will, freeze its assets, confiscate its property, reject nominees to its governing board, block its funding, or deny requests to affiliate with international organisations. The law does not indicate that nongovernmental organisations have the right to appeal the decision.
The law provides for criminal penalties of up to one year in prison for unauthorised activities by independent groups.
“Egyptian authorities are using the law to orchestrate a witch hunt against nongovernmental organisations and put them under their thumb. The government must withdraw the requirement for compulsory registration of nongovernmental organisations under the current law, which is contrary to international human rights standards,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Middle East and North Africa Programme deputy director at Amnesty International.
Currently there are 89 foreign organisations and almost 40,000 Egyptian NGOs permitted to operate in Egypt.
Under the government of former president Hosni Mubarak, the authorities routinely harassed activists and arbitrarily shut down independent groups, said the statement.
“The Al-Sisi government’s demand for all organisations to register under the discredited 2002 law is nothing but an order for them to surrender their independence,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “There’s no way that an organisation can register under Law 84 and still be considered ‘independent’ from the government.”
Egyptian organisations have sought to abolish Law 84/2002 since it was enacted, and the various governments since then have proposed several new draft laws concerning independent groups, but none became law.
On 14 August, the Ministry of Social Solidarity issued a statement saying that since the 25 January Revolution, three drafts were prepared in an attempt to modify the 2002 NGOs law. Despite this, a new law has not been issued yet.
It declared its commitment to come up with a final draft that is in line with the 2014 Constitution, in which Article 75 states the declaration of an NGO is by notification. For an NGO to be dissolved, a court sentence is needed, and the law is to be issued and approved by the upcoming elected parliament.
The ministry called upon the NGOs “not to prejudge, as well as respect the current consultative and democratic process that is taking place in order to issue a new modern and balanced law that supports development efforts in Egypt”.
Egyptian organisations have called for a new associations law that will provide for independent oversight and transparency in funding and operations. They have submitted numerous proposals, including an alternative draft law that they say complies with international standards and best practices.
They negotiated with the social solidarity ministry for more than six months to draft a new law, upon invitation from the former minister of social solidarity, Ahmed Boraie. Boraie submitted a consensus draft to the cabinet in February for introduction to the new parliament, once elected. But the government has ignored this draft and all prior proposals, said the Saturday joint statement.
On 9 July, 29 NGOs issued a joint statement rejecting a bill put forth by the Ministry of Social Solidarity that allows government interference in their affairs and poses “unconstitutional” restrictions.
“The existing law and the draft bill rob independent nongovernmental organisations of all meaning and deny Egypt creative energies by effectively shutting down the few remaining legitimate channels for public action,” said Karim Lahidji, president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). “Even during Mubarak’s three decades of stagnation and stifled public space, the government never went as far as this crackdown threatens to go.”
“What is needed to overcome the present crisis is respect for human rights, not closing nongovernmental organisations down,”said Gerald Staberock, secretary general at the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT).