Egypt cracks down on civil society

In an alarming new development Egypt's Sisi regime has announced plans to drastically restrict the activities of civil society organisations, effectively bringing them all under government control.

A draft law proposed by the Ministry of Social Solidarity would allow the government and security agencies to dissolve existing groups, pending a court order, or refuse to license new groups if it decided their activities could “threaten national unity”. 

The proposed law would:

  • Permit officials to inspect the premises of any association suspected of engaging in the work of a nongovernmental organisation. 

  • Impose crippling restrictions on foreign funding of Egyptian nongovernmental groups and their capacity to communicate or cooperate with groups abroad. 

  • Impose sentences of at least one year in prison and a fine of at least EGP100,000 ($13,985) for infractions.

  • Prohibit all associations from engaging in “political activities” or undertaking the work of trade unions and associations (eg by promoting workers' rights).

  • Require associations to report annually to the government, disclosing details of their finances, activities, and internal decision making.

  • Require all groups that the government considers to be working as nongovernmental organisations to apply for re-registration as associations. 

  • Require international organisations to obtain permission in advance from an Egyptian government committee containing Interior Ministry and intelligence service representatives before carrying out any activity in Egypt. The committee would be able to rescind that permission at any time, for any reason.

Human Rights Watch has condemned the proposals. Joe Stork, its deputy Middle East director said:

“This law is not about regulating nongovernmental organisations – it's about throttling them and robbing them of their independence. These provisions would extinguish a crucial element of democracy in Egypt.”

In Egypt, a group of 29 NGOs have also denounced the plan (see reports in Al-AhramDaily News Egypt and the Egypt Independent. In a statement, the groups warned: 

"If the proposed law is adopted, it will put Egypt in a class with other countries with terrible NGO statutes, such as Ethiopia, Israel, China and Belarus, thus belying all government claims to democratisation and respect for human rights."

The groups also argue that the proposed law conflicts with provisions in the new constitution approved earlier this year. Article 75 of the constitution says:

"All citizens shall have the right to form non-governmental associations and foundations on democratic basis, which shall acquire legal personality upon notification. 

"Such associations and foundations shall have the right to practice their activities freely, and administrative agencies may not interfere in their affairs or dissolve them, or dissolve their 
boards of directors or boards of trustees save by a court judgment. 

"The establishment or continuation of non-governmental associations and foundations, whose statutes or activities are secretive or conducted in secret or which are of military or quasi-military nature is prohibited as regulated by law."

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 15 July 2014