Financial Times: Law Proposed by Egyptian Government Would Suffocate NGOs
Egypt’s proposal threatens to suffocate NGOs
By Heba Saleh
Civil society activists in Egypt say proposed legislation drafted by the country’s military-backed government threatens to suffocate NGOs by imposing new restrictions that would ensure almost complete control by the authorities.
The law, which has yet to be approved by the country’s newly elected parliament, comes amid a crackdown by the authorities against local and foreign pro-democracy groups accused of working in Egypt without permission and receiving unauthorised foreign funding.
Egyptian magistrates started criminal proceedings earlier this week against 43 foreign and Egyptian workers in five pro-democracy groups on charges which carry penalties of up to five years in jail. Nineteen US citizens are among those referred to trial triggering a crisis in relations between Cairo and Washington and imperilling $1.55bn of US aid to the country.
The magistrates said on Wednesday that they were probing other organisations and hundreds of individuals, in remarks which have increased the consternation of local NGOs, who expected that the demise of the regime of Hosni Mubarak, the former president, would lead to more freedom to operate.
“The new law would effectively nationalise civil society groups,” said Hossam Bahgat, who heads the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “It includes restrictions which even Cuba did not think of.”
The country already has what is considered a draconian law governing the registration and funding of civil society groups that has been the target of repeated criticism from UN bodies monitoring Egypt’s human rights record.
The proposed legislation would give the authorities even more power, including that of deciding whether an organisation’s activities are acceptable on the basis of “threatening national unity, violating public order or morality or calling for discrimination”.
It would also close loopholes which allowed independent organisations to function by registering as law offices, clinics [for those dealing with victims of torture] or even companies. The government would be able to shut them down by administrative decision.
“The ruling military council is still implementing the [repressive] policies of Hosni Mubarak,” said Gamal Eid, the executive director of the Egyptian Network of Human Rights Information. “They don’t know what civil society is, and they just think that those are people who obtain foreign funding so they must be anti-Egypt.”
The magistrates who referred the NGO workers to trial hinted on Wednesday that their activities threatened national security, and that they monitored the locations of Egyptian army forces.
Leading the campaign against the associations has been Fayza Aboul Naga, the minister of planning and international co-operation, who is one of only two ministers to remain in the cabinet since the Mubarak years.
Her ministry is responsible for channelling foreign aid, and she has had several run-ins with the US officials over decisions to give funding directly to civil society groups bypassing the government.
Mrs Aboul Naga said in parliament this week that the US disbursed $175m dollars to groups working in the country between March and June 2011.
Her tough stance, and apparent determination in recent weeks to impose control over civil society, has unleashed criticism at home and abroad, with many attacks suggesting that she is implementing her own policy, rather than one backed by Egypt’s ruling generals and the country’s security services.
“Given Minister Aboul Naga’s recent statements, I strongly believe that no future US government funds should be provided to or through that ministry as long as she is in charge,” said Senator Patrick Leahy earlier this week. “As the chair of the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations, I am confident there is strong support in Congress for this position.”
While there is no love lost between Egyptian groups and Mrs Aboul Naga, local activists say she is the front for a deeply entrenched part of the regime that has not been overthrown by the Egyptian revolution.
“Fayza is the arrowhead for this campaign, but the problem is that there is no political will and that these are the directives of the military council,” said Gamal Eid.
“However, she is excelling in the role, because she has a personal vendetta. She was part of the Mubarak regime.”