New law threatens civil work in Egypt

A year and two months after Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ratified the Law on the Practice of Private Work, the Council of Ministers agreed, in principle, to issue the executive regulations of the law, without announcing its provisions. It is decided that a consensus will be reached between the relevant ministries on some of the items for the final approval of the regulations. This declaration threatens civil work in Egypt and may lead to dozens of NGOs’ closure. Perhaps the delay in issuing the executive regulations is due to the sovereign and supervisory authorities’ consultations and al-Sisi’s advisor for national security affairs, Fayza Abu al-Naja, because of what this law constitutes of an anticipated crisis between Egypt and the West.

The Western embassies in Cairo informed the government that the significant western organisations and institutions interested in financing development work in the country, which had previously stopped funding many projects, would not return to finance developmental, cultural, health, and educational activities in Egypt, due to the law. These institutions are afraid of several problems they previously suffered from between 2013 and 2017, including the restriction of funding that they used to send to Egyptian educational and human rights organisations and bodies, their detention for long periods at the Ministry of Solidarity, and preventing the completion of some projects that have already obtained government approval.

According to the new law, all associations, civil institutions, unions, regional and foreign non-governmental organisations, and entities that practice civil work, must adjust their positions within one year from the date of the implementation of the executive regulations of the law otherwise the competent court will dissolve them. Attempts to enact a new law regulating civil work in Egypt, in place of the law issued in 2002, go back to 2013, when a committee of civil society representatives commissioned by the then Minister of Social Solidarity, Ahmed al-Borai, prepared a draft law. This law was described by the Director of the Egypt office of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Muhammad Zaree’, as one of the best laws that came out of the government, but it did not see the light of day.

In September 2016, the government ignored the draft law drafted by civil society representatives. It approved a draft law prepared by the Ministry of Social Solidarity and sent it to the State Council for review before it was presented to the House of Representatives. Still, it faced human rights objections for several reasons, including the difficult conditions for establishing associations. In a surprising move, the parliament discussed a draft law in November 2016 to regulate NGOs submitted by 204 deputies, led by the head of the Support Egypt coalition, Abdel Hadi al-Qasabi, ignoring the government project. Jurists considered the al-Qasabi project to be worse than the Ministry of Social Solidarity project, and that it “crosses all borders,” in the words of Zaree’. In this law, the penalties approved by the draft law for violations were changed to become imprisonment instead of the fine stipulated by the government.

The former Minister of Social Solidarity, Ghada Wali, objected to the al-Qasabi law, and this was evident in her not attending the discussions about it. Parliament quickly approved the law, but it was delayed in being sent to the presidency until May 2017, when al-Sisi approved it, but its executive regulations were not issued. This delay was justified by a member of parliament, Muhammad Abu Hamid, that this “reflects that the presidency was subjecting the matter to study before the implementation of the law.”

The law faced calls to amend it, but al-Sisi rejected them in December 2017. Still, in November 2018, the president changed his mind and demanded it be amended after one of the World Youth Forum participants at the time requested to do so, and in the background, there was pressure to change it, most notably from members of the US Congress. After that, the government called for community dialogue sessions on amending the law, and the amendments were already made in January 2019, the most prominent of which was the abolition of freedom-depriving penalties and sufficiency of financial fines for receiving funds from a foreign or local entity or collecting donations, without the approval of the administrative body.

It also included the cancellation of the articles of the National Authority to Regulate the Work of Foreign Non-Governmental Organisations, which the current law stipulated to be formed from representatives of the Ministries of Defence, Interior, Foreign Affairs and Justice, as well as a representative of the General Intelligence Service, the Central Bank, and Administrative Control to decide on everything related to the establishment, work and activity of foreign organisations. It was decided it would be replaced with a material to create a central unit for associations, civil work, and its sub-units at the Ministry of Solidarity.

The new law prohibits, in some of its provisions, the exercise of several activities under the pretext of violating “national security,” and gives the authorities the power to dissolve organisations due to “violations,” and imposes fines of up to EGP 1 million (about $60,000). For his part, the director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, Mohamed Lotfi, believes that the issuance of the law’s executive regulations will not have a positive influence on organising civil work. He pointed out that dozens of associations and organisations face a major crisis in adjusting their status according to the law. He said that the law restricts civil work in Egypt. “If I succeed in registering, which will not be just notified, it will be difficult for me to take any other step without a permit.” He added, “Any step requires approvals; otherwise, we will face heavy penalties and fines.” He continued: “Civil work is societal work that needs society to be free, able to do what is required of it, and if society is free, there is no need for a law regulating its civil work.” Lotfi added, “As for civil associations, they are only held accountable for committing any crime or violation of the law, and the penal code has enough to be held accountable for that.” He pointed out that international charters related to that work, stipulated in the Egyptian constitution, must be applied, but the law itself restricted them.

While Ahmed al-Burai said, “The law contradicts in many of its articles general international principles of the right of individuals to form and join civil society organisations.” He denied any similarities between the law and the draft he prepared at the time of his presence in the ministry in 2013, describing the amendments as replacing the security services’ duties and powers over civil work with employee oversight. Local and international bodies criticise Egypt because of the human rights situation there, which the authorities used to deny, stressing that they “support freedom of expression, human rights institutions and the independence of the judiciary.”