Egyptian rights group backs NGO restrictions

No problem for those who have "nothing to hide"

Last week 20 rights organisations in Egypt issued a joint statement condemning "increasingly aggressive actions" by the Sisi regime to crack down on civil society activities. "The ongoing harassment of civil society in Egypt contradicts all claims that the country is democratising," they said.

Egypt's comically-named Ministry of Social Solidarity has been touting a draft law to regulate NGOs which would:

  • Make all activities of associations, including board decisions, subject to government veto. 

  • Empower 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". 

  • A allow 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.

The draft law is still under discussion but in the meantime the Sisi regime has been attempting to reimpose a Mubarak era law that also severely restricted civil society organisations. Last summer, "all entities conducting civil society activities" were ordered to register under Law No 84 of 2002 on Associations and Foundations – with the threat of prosecution for any that failed to do so.

Law No 84 has been heavily criticised over the years. In the words of a Human Right Watch report, it "created a legal regime that gives the state excessive latitude to dissolve, reject, or slowly choke any organisation financially, should it wish to do so", and the move to reimpose it brought protests from various NGOs.

One Egyptian organisation that views these developments with surprising equanimity is Maat for Peace, Development and Human Rights. In an interview with Daily News Egypt last week, Maat's general manager, Ayman Okeil, blamed civil society organisations for the problems they face. "Some of them undertake a political pressuring role against the government, which makes it impossible to work together towards progress," he said.

The interview continued:

Q: How do you view this new draft law regulating NGOs and other independent entities? Some claimed it is going be yet another form of subordination to direct state monitoring, financial and security control?

A: I don’t agree. I think that one of the positive points of the law is that there will be a defined specialised committee approving or rejecting my projects, giving me a chance to appeal their decision before court. It also stipulates that an NGO is established with prior notification to the Ministry of Solidarity, which eases bureaucratic procedures. As for the part where we have to submit to monitoring, I don’t see a problem as long as I have nothing to hide. I mean, before that NGOs were oppressed and denied authorisations without knowing "who" was behind it, and we knew it was National Security. Now things will be on the table, with clearly stated reasons for the rejection.

Maat – named after the ancient Egyptian goddess of truth and justice – works closely with a controversial Norwegian-based organisation, the Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD) and the Swiss-based International Institute for Peace Justice and Human Rights (IIPJHR). These three formed a "joint observer mission" for last year's presidential election which legitimised Sisi's seizure of power in Egypt and produced an enthusiastic report:

"The Egyptian people have experienced a unique process toward democratic transition, and despite the fact that minor errors and inaccuracies occurred, these do not shed a negative light on the overall results of the electoral process ...

"The Joint Mission was honoured to be a part of the 2014 Egyptian Presidential Election and contribute to promoting its transparency, integrity, and success. The Joint Mission expresses its hope that these contributions will support Egypt’s development and a smooth transition to democracy. We wish success to Egypt, being one of the most influential countries in the Middle East, and commend their achievements thus far towards a path to democracy."

One prominent member of the observer mission was GNRD's "High Commissioner for Europe", Anne Marie Lizin, a Belgian politician who has been banned from public office following a conviction for electoral malpractice.

The same three organisations were also selected by the Egyptian authorities earlier this year to monitor Egypt's forthcoming parliamentary elections – though the elections themselves have since been postponed.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 11 May 2015