July 16, 2019

The Egyptian parliament has approved in principle a draft amendment to the NGO Law, which was introduced by the government, including a significant easing of restrictions on NGOs.

Parliament’s social solidarity committee said that the law is not just an amendment of the current legislation (issued in 2017), but should be considered a completely new law.

Despite this, 10 human rights organisations have said that the new draft law is simply repression, rebranded. The organisations signed a statement asserting that the majority of changes to the draft NGO law are deceptive and superficial, and said that it retains the repressive aspects of the current law.

The new law says that NGOs cannot be dissolved except by court order, and eliminates the penalty of imprisonment.

But the rights organisations said that while the draft bill eliminates Security Council regulation and custodial penalties for violators, it replaces those penalties with exorbitant fines of up to EGP 1 million.

Also, 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.

The draft NGO law must be rejected in favour 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, the rights organisations said.

The speaker of the Egyptian parliament Ali Abdel Aal, said that “the amendment of the law is aimed at improving civil work, and in accordance with international standards and requirements.”

The current law, issued in May 2017 which has been virtually frozen, has drawn widespread criticism by domestic and international human rights institutions. The organisations said that the law restricts the work of NGOs and practically prohibits their work and restricts them to development and social activities, without any political or partisan activities.

In light of increasing criticism, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi asked in November last year for a review of the law, although parliamentarians defended it when it was issued saying it was “necessary to confront organisations that receive foreign funding and threaten Egyptian national security.”

However, most of those lawmakers who defended the old law and passed it by a large majority in parliament returned to approve the new amendments.

On Sunday morning, prior to the adoption of the amendments, Abdel Aal said that the new NGO law was not drafted by the government in response to foreign pressure. “When Egypt passed its own version of the NGO law, Egypt faced many challenges, especially in security, but Egypt is now a strong country,” he said.

He pointed out that the new NGO law meets 99 per cent of the demands of civil society. “Most importantly, it eliminates all sanctions that restrict freedom and reinforces the role of NGOs in achieving development plans in the country,” he said.

Abdel Aal’s speech came in response to several opposition MPs who said they would vote “no” for the law on the grounds that it was amended “under foreign pressure.”

Parliamentarian opposition bloc Alliance 25-30 announced its rejection of the amendments to the draft NGO law, considering that it came on the basis of “foreign pressure only.”

MP Imad Gad defended the change in position between support for the previous law and the current amendments by saying circumstances have now changed. However, neither the speaker of the parliament nor lawmakers clarified the variables that required a change of law only three years after its adoption.

Under the former NGO Law a large number of activists, jurists and NGO directors were placed under investigation. Opponents to the legislation said that this was because of their political views, and that the law was detailed to suppress non-state work and to imprison dissidents active in that area. The new bill does not seem to offer a different fate to these people. 

The 10 organisations who oppose the law include the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Egyptian Front for Human Rights, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, Committee for Justice, Freedom Initiative, Nadeem Centre, Adalah Centre for Rights and Freedoms, Belady Centre for Rights and Freedoms, Association for the Freedom of Thought and Expression, and the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights.

The initial approval of the parliament means the bill will be sent to the Council of State (a judicial body) which will issue its opinion on the law. It will then be returned to parliament for final approval and sent to the Egyptian President to sign and issue as a law.