How has Al-Sisi restricted civil work and banned associations?

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The executive regulations of the law regulating the practice of private work in Egypt revealed strict restrictions imposed by the law on the work of independent human rights organisations and others.

The issuance of the regulation came nearly 17 months after Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi ratified the Law Regulating the Practice of Private Work No. 149 of 2019 in August 2019.

The regulation shows the need for a strict review of the law in order to meet international standards. It strengthened the prohibition of any work of a “political” nature and added new restrictions that largely eliminate freedom of association in essence. The law abolished the lengthy prison terms that had been in place in the previous 2017 law but maintained the most severe restrictions on the work of independent organisations.

The executive regulations grant organisations until January 2022 to register under Law 149, otherwise they face the risk of dissolution. The law imposes fines of up to EGP 1 million ($64,000) on entities that violate its conditions, which would stop the work of most independent organisations.

The executive regulations require the Ministry of Social Solidarity to create a database containing details such as data for all employees, volunteers, and financiers. It also requires “any other documents requested by the minister” for all non-governmental organisations and to ensure the “immediate sharing” of this information between the ministry and the “relevant authorities.”

According to Human Rights Watch, this amounts to the level of active monitoring by the ministry and security agencies, which appears to be among the sovereign bodies referred to as “relevant authorities.” The regulation grants the Social Solidarity Ministry the right to suspend any association’s work due to violating provisions of the law for a period of up to a year. It may grant the ministry the right to request the administrative court to dissolve the association and confiscate its assets. Ministry employees can conduct surprise inspections of the association’s files and activities.

The law requires existing associations, for example, to submit detailed reports on all their past activities, the geographical areas in which they are active, the sources of their funding, and any contracts or cooperation agreements with any other organisations. The law also requires associations to pay EGP 5,000 ($320) to rent or own a multi-room office.

The organisation’s failure to present any document may result in the invalidation of its registration, which is what the authorities can use as an excuse to refuse any organisation’s registration or to ban it. New organisations have to follow similar requirements and promptly report new activities as required by law. Based on a review of similar decisions in the Official Gazette, it also appears that the organisation will not be legally registered until the Ministry of Social Solidarity issues a decision to this effect in the Official Gazette.

According to Human Rights Watch, the law targets leading human rights organisations that were active as law firms or research centres to avoid restrictions under the previous laws. Foreign organisations face additional restrictions as they must obtain approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is only valid for a specific activity, a certain geographical area, and a certain time. The licence must be renewed each time for each additional activity. After government approval, foreign citizens can only join local organisations if they have a valid residency permit in Egypt and under the law.

The executive regulations stipulate that individuals cannot implement any civil initiative or campaign or work outside the association without prior permission from the government, which requires complex procedures, including opening a separate bank account for the activity.

The law prohibits carrying out a wide range of activities without prior governmental approval, such as “conducting opinion polls, publishing them, making their results available, conducting field research or presenting their results,” or carrying out activities within “border areas,” or “partnering or cooperating” with foreign or local organisations. The law also uses vaguely worded terms to prohibit other activities altogether, such as those that do not “coincide with the goals” of the association or any “political” activity or action that undermines “national security, public order, or public morals.” Neither the law nor its implementing regulations provide definitions for any of the terms which authorities frequently use to prohibit and punish the peaceful exercise of rights.

The executive regulations require all associations to inform the Ministry of Social Solidarity in detail about all financing contracts with entities outside Egypt within 30 days of receiving the funds. It also requires the return of the funds if the ministry rejects the contracts after “consulting with the concerned authorities” within 60 days. Associations need prior government approval to collect individual donations or hold fundraising events.

Al-Sisi’s regime has been known for its relentless crackdown on independent organisations and human rights activists, including through arbitrary arrests, unfair prosecutions, travel bans, and asset freezes. The authorities have previously cracked down on independent organisations and human rights activists, including through arbitrary arrests, unfair prosecutions, travel bans, and asset freezes.

According to human rights researcher Amr Magdy, this law and regulations “cause the systematic targeting of civil society groups and human rights defenders.” “As is the case with any authoritarian regime that constantly fears the power of people, the Sisi government treats independent organisations as a threat and does not see the value that these organisations actually represent.” He pointed out that “forcing everyone to register means that hanging Ramadan decorations on the street can be criminal, as is the rule of law, as a private business without a licence.” He added, “The law and regulations reflect the determination of the Egyptian government to restrict the once-vibrant civil society.” He concluded by saying, “This law, along with the ongoing persecution of activists, sends a clear message that there is no place in Egypt today for independent civil work.”