Egypt: Draft NGO law before parliament is simply rebranded repression, must be rejected

The undersigned organizations reject the draft NGO law currently before the Egyptian parliament. Presented as an alternative to the widely-criticized Law 70 of 2017, the draft NGO is simply a rebranding of the current repressive law. It is animated by the same underlying hostility to civil society organizations, and seeks to subordinate them to the security apparatus. We urge all concerned parties, including the international community, to reject the bill and pressure for further reforms, especially by advocating for the NGO bill drafted under former Minister of Social Solidarity Ahmed al-Borai – a bill that was formulated on the foundation of extensive consultation, dialogue, and input from civil society organizations and ministries.

The majority of changes in the draft NGO law are deceptive and superficial, and it retains the repressive aspects of Law 70, which President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was pressured to amend following broad domestic and international criticism.  For example, while the draft bill eliminates Security Council regulation and custodial penalties for violators, it replaces those penalties with exorbitant fines of up to LE1 million.  Moreover, completely eliminating custodial sentences would require amendments to other laws as well, first and foremost the Penal Code and the counterterrorism and terrorist entities laws, which are used to criminalize the work of non-governmental organizations and human rights defenders. The defendants in case no. 173 of 2011, known as the Foreign Funding Case, are facing charges under provisions of the Penal Code that carry a life sentence.

And although the draft NGO law eliminates overt regulation by the Security Council, its other provisions ensure that the security apparatus is enabled to maintain full control of civil society operations behind the scenes. The Central Unit for Civic Associations, which replaces the Security Council, is subordinated to the competent minister, leaving its relationship to other state entities be determined by the law’s implementing regulations (Article 77).  The draft law also requires the administrative body to establish an instrument for immediate information exchange with the competent authorities if any civic organizations are suspected of funding terrorism or being exploited for this purpose (Article 81).

Like the current Law 70 of 2017 that it seeks to replace, the draft NGO law circumvents Article 75 of the Constitution, which provides for the establishment of associations by notification. The notification process is instead warped by both of these bills into a de facto licensing regime; by making the acquisition of legal personhood conditional on the lack of objection from the administrative entity, and conditional upon a letter from that entity to banks, allowing associations to open accounts (Article 11). The proposed bill also follows the current law in suspending the notification process for civic associations in border regions, instead requiring them to obtain a prior permit with governor approval (Article 15). It should be noted as well that the category of  “border regions” is not fixed and can be expanded to include additional regions by state decree.

The proposed NGO law makes an apparent improvement to the existing law by removing a provision that would give the Civic Associations Support Fund one percent of all civic association funding, which was objected to by many donor bodies. However, any potential benefits deriving from that provision’s removal are nullified by other provisions ensuring the state’s virtual control over civic association funding and activity. For example, the draft bill classifies associations’ funds as public monies (Article 24, last paragraph), subjecting them to the oversight of the Central Accounting Authority. Not only are civic associations not public institutions and their funds not public funds, as affirmed in previous rulings of the Supreme Constitutional Court; by making these funds public, those responsible for them become public servants, subject to stiff penalties for crimes such as the misappropriation of public funds. As such, the loss of just LE100 from an association’s account would be a felony with a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

Furthermore, the draft NGO law before parliament, like its predecessor, enables the curtailment of civic activity by requiring prior approval of all foreign funding and international grants. The state can therefore cripple any association by denying funding approval, and the bill does not require the state to provide reasons for its denial of funding (Article 28).

When considering the draft NGO law currently before parliament, the undersigned organizations contend that only does it maintain the repressive character of Law 70 of 2017 currently in force, it is also considerably worse than Law 84 of 2002 and contravenes Egypt’s constitution and international obligations, including the recommendations accepted by Egypt during its second Universal Periodic Review in November 2014. The draft NGO law must be rejected in favor of formulating legislation that, rather than simply rebranding the current repressive law, provides a genuine framework for a functional and independent civil society in Egypt.

Signatory Organizations:

  1. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
  2. Egyptian Front for Human Rights
  3. Arabic Network for Human Rights Information
  4. Committee for Justice
  5. Freedom Initiative
  6. Nadeem Center
  7. Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms
  8. Belady Center for Rights and Freedoms
  9. Association for the Freedom of Thought and Expression
  10. Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights

In addition to the aforementioned, the undersigned organizations object to the following provisions in the draft NGO law currently before the parliament:

  1. The law prohibits anyone from engaging in activity falling within the remit of civic associations without registering as a civic association, while granting authority to the administrative body to dissolve and shut down the offices of any “entity” violating this provision. Article 4 allows for the confiscation of all the entity’s assets for the Civic Association Support Fund with an Administrative Court ruling.
  2. The law prohibits civic associations from conducting opinion polls and field research and publishing their findings, except with the approval of the Central Authority for Public Mobilization and Statistics (Article 16). Violators are subject to a fine of up to LE500,000 (Article 96).
  3. The law uses overly broad language to define activities prohibited to civic associations, thereby giving the government ample room to interfere with or dissolve associations, or refuse to license them. For example, the law prohibits activities that infringe upon the public order or morals, national unity, and national security (Article 16).
  4. It grants the administrative body the right to object to the decisions of civic associations, and disqualify candidates for civic association boards without stating cause and without a judicial order (Articles 35 and 39).
  5. The law limits the activities and purposes of associations to social development fields that comport with the state’s development plan and societal needs (Article 15).
  6. It retains Law 70’s prohibition on cooperating foreign organizations, requiring a prior permit from the competent minister (Article 20/2), as well as requiring a prior permit to open branches outside Egypt (Article 21).
  7. It gives the administrative body the right, pursuant to the approval of the public prosecutor, to examine the bank accounts of registered associations and “entities” that engage in the activities of civic associations without providing prima facie evidence of any crime, thereby usurping the prerogatives of the Cairo Appellate Court, as the judicial guarantor of bank secrecy (Article 11, final paragraph).
  8. The law allows the competent minister to suspend the operation of an association for up to one year, and shut down its offices, for trivial offenses, such as engaging in activities not spelled out in the association’s charter or not licensed, the disposal or allocation of funds by the board of directors for purposes other than those for which the association was founded, or moving to a new address without notifying the administrative body (Article 46). The closure decision shall be brought before the judiciary, with the closure decision valid until then.
  9. The law places numerous restrictions on foreign organizations. They are required to have prior approval for registration, but the process is not clearly articulated and is left to the law’s implementing regulations (Articles 66 and 67). Foreign organizations may also have their licenses revoked for overly vague reasons, such as infringing national security, the public peace, or the public order.
  10. Foreign organizations must engage in activities that comport with the priorities of Egyptian society, as articulated in state development plans (Article 69).
  11. Foreign organizations are required to sign an affidavit giving the administrative body the right to examine their bank accounts as necessary (Article 72).
  12. Many significant issues are not elaborated in the law, but rather, are left to the implementing regulations, which would allow the executive, represented by the prime minister, to further undermine the freedom of association and establish additional obstacles and restrictions other than those already inscribed in the bill.