CAIRO – The Egyptian parliament on Tuesday voted in favor of a new law aimed at regulating non-governmental organizations but effectively gives security agencies extensive powers and the upper hand over the financing, registration, and activities of NGOs and rights groups.
The law, considered by rights groups as the most repressive for such organizations since the rule of President Hosni Mubarak, won a majority of the vote among lawmakers, mostly the president’s supporters.
Under the law, which is yet to be ratified by the president, violators of administrative procedures such as receiving foreign funds or local donations of over 10,000 pounds, partnering with a foreign organization, relocating headquarters, and carrying out field research and surveys without permission, face up to five years in prison along with heavy fines of up to one million pounds (around $55,000).
Permits will be provided solely by a newly-created oversight body made up of several government agencies and security apparatuses such as the intelligence agency, and the ministries of defense and interior, effectively placing civil society at their mercy.
Since the overthrow of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak in mass uprising in 2011, Egypt’s rights groups have faced a heavy security crackdown and concerted state-media campaign that accused them of being architects of instability and advocates of regime change. They were denounced by the campaign for allegedly acting as a “fifth column” and a back door for western interests by receiving foreign funds and executing foreign agendas.
Just a few months after the uprising, security forces raided 17 offices of mostly foreign NGOs and referred 43 people, including U.S. citizens, to courts but most of the defendants fled the country and were sentenced in absentia. This year, the authorities revived the same case and began a new episode of harassing rights groups’ leaders, ordering asset freezes and travel bans. If found guilty of illegally receiving foreign funds, or other charges linked to harming national security, they would face sentences that could reach life imprisonment.
Since the military ouster of Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013 and the subsequent election of army-chief-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Egypt has witnessed an unprecedented crackdown on opposition, mainly the Muslim Brotherhood group to which President Morsi belonged, and is now considered a terrorist organization.
Once the president ratifies the law, all existing rights groups and NGOs, estimated at around 50,000, will have to abide by its 89 provisions. Rights groups advocating against police abuses and defending freedom of speech will find themselves in the impossibly awkward position of seeking to obtain authorizations from the very security apparatuses whose practices they routinely condemn.
“There will be a massacre for the rights groups and NGOs,” said Mohamed Zaree, manager of Egypt’s oldest rights group, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
Rights groups have expressed concern over vague terms such as “harming national security” and “upsetting public order” that have used to justify imprisoning more civil rights activists and shut down NGOs.
Provision 14, for example, states: “it is banned … to practice activities that cause disruption of national unity, national security, public order, and public morals.”
Among the law’s other provisions, charities and NGOs providing social services must adjust their agendas in accordance with that of the state for national development.
“This is inspired by the 1960s laws, where civil society was nationalized and turned into another branch from the government,” said Zaree.
London-based rights group Amnesty International described the law as a “death warrant” for rights groups and called upon the president not to ratify it.
The United Nations expressed alarm at the new bill and said that it will turn local NGOs into “government puppets”