‘Unconstitutional’: Egypt’s civil society rejects Community Associations Law

Seven Egyptian human rights organisations have declared their rejection of the executive regulation of the Community Associations Law, issued in January 2021, expressing their strong condemnation of the Egyptian regime’s insistence on closing all outlets of the civil associations, by issuing a regulation that reinforces the regulations mentioned in the National Labour Law No. 149 of 2019. More restrictions have been placed on the work of civil society organisations, as well as on the orientation of the exclusive security services and the marginalisation of their charitable and developmental role.

The regulation comes as civil society, whether working on development or human rights, faces unprecedented restrictions, demonstrating the security services’ plan to control various community initiatives seeking to improve the economic, development and human rights situation in the country.

The regulation overrides the Egyptian constitution

The seven organisations (Cairo Centre for Human Rights Studies – Al-Nadim Centre – Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms – Egyptian Front for Human Rights – Arab Network for Human Rights Information – Freedom Initiative – Committee for Justice) confirmed that the law and its executive regulations violate the text of article 75 of the Egyptian constitution, and Egypt’s obligations according to the international human rights treaties.

Although article 75 of the constitution restricted the activities of associations only by avoiding secret, military or paramilitary activities, the law and the regulation ignored the constitutional text and placed extensive and vague restrictions on their activities. In addition, the legislation restricts the areas of work of civil associations to only activities approved by governmental authorities. Accordingly, the regulations represent a constitutional override of what is guaranteed by the constitution.

For example, the law and its regulations limit the work of associations to community development, provided that the state’s development plans and the needs of society are taken into account. However, the executive regulation did not clarify what is meant by “community development,” which opens the door to several interpretations that could allow the refusal to register or the suspension of associations because they do not support the state’s development plans or because the society does not need the association’s activities. This also applies to foreign NGOs.

On the other hand, the law has drawn up an extensive list of activities banned for associations, including activities that the government have not been notified with during the establishment, conducting or publishing surveys, and to conduct field research or present its findings before approval by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics as the agency should ensure their integrity, impartiality and relevance to the association’s work.

Big penalties and fines

The law referred the details of the procedures for obtaining funds from foreign natural or legal figures to the regulation, which obliged the NGOs to wait for a response from the authorities whether to accept or reject within 60 working days. In addition to the long wait time, the main problem is that the regulation obliges the association to reimburse the donor within five working days from the date of receipt of the rejection denying the associations any hope to challenge the decision or to use the grant once the court accepts its appeal on the governmental decision.

As for international organisations, the law also referred the procedures for organising their work to the executive regulation, which required the organisation to apply for authorisation to the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, without obliging the ministry to decide on the application within a specified period.

The law and the regulation imposed a large number of restrictions, including fines of up to EGP 1 million for acts that do not deserve to be crimes in the first place. This is to kill the spirit of initiative in society and deter the actors from practicing civil work, which is to be fraught by security threats and endless bureaucratic complications. Moreover, the activists in civil work will be threatened by subjection to the penal code in cases of violating the law.

The law allowed the competent minister to issue a decision to suspend the association’s activity and close its headquarters for up to a year, as well as to suspend its board of directors, and to appoint caretakers for its work during the period of the stay. Regarding the violations the law puts such penalty for, the penalty is disproportionate and does not require such measures. Such violations include; engaging in activities not included in the statute even if it is a legal activity such as opening literacy classes, moving to a new headquarters without notifying the administrative body, opening branches at home without notice, and launching an initiative or campaign to carry out a non-licenced family activity.

The law also considered the associations’ money as public money, which means that the government will treat the association activists as public employees, imposing severe penalties up to life imprisonment in case of a financial violation.

The law decided a fine of not less than EGP 100,000 (equivalent to $6,300) and not more than EGP one million (equivalent to $63,000) if funds are received from foreign or local parties in violation of the law, and in cases where the board of directors of the association allocated funds for purposes other than those for which it was established, or engaged in activities that would disrupt public order, public morals, national unity or national security. All of these are subject to the discretion and interpretation of the government alone.