McClatchy Looks at Egypt’s Attempt to Restrict Civil Society

Proposed Egyptian Law on Non-profits Seen as Echo of Mubarak Era
McClatchy Newspapers
By Nancy A. Youssef

A draft Egyptian law regulating so-called nongovernmental organizations would limit the private, nonprofit groups in many of the same ways that the government of President Hosni Mubarak sought to control their operations – a sign, analysts here say, that President Mohammed Morsi fears that the groups could be used to oppose his government in the same way Mubarak supporters felt they’d helped topple his.

Under the proposed law, the government would have a say over how NGOs operate internally, how they’re funded and how much foreign organizations could be involved in elections, according to a draft of the law that McClatchy reviewed.

That Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, has endorsed the numerous barriers to how NGOs operate that would be enshrined in the new law is seen by many here as the latest assault on the political liberalization ushered in by the 2011 uprising that led to his election.

Since Mubarak fell, the most marked changes in Egyptian life are increased freedom of expression, assembly and association. But Morsi’s government has taken to intimidating the president’s opponents, charging politicians, pundits and even comedians with insulting him, and sending the police to violently confront anti-Morsi protesters.

Overall, the proposed law is only marginally different from the Mubarak-era regulation, which allowed Egyptian officials to raid 17 NGOs in 2011, including the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, and charge 43 employees – including 16 Americans – with improper acts. Fifteen of those Americans fled and were tried in absentia. The 16th, Robert Becker, remained. The court is expected to rule on the case next Tuesday.

In some ways, the new law is more restrictive. Under Mubarak, American NGOs could work alongside Egyptian political parties, but the new law would outlaw foreign NGOs from participating in “partisan activities that are practiced by political parties and activities that infringe the national sovereignty.” The measure doesn’t explain what “partisan activities” entail.

The 13-page, 74-article proposed law requires that an NGO pay at least 50,000 Egyptian pounds – or about $7,142 – to register. It also says that no more than 25 percent of the organization’s staff members may be non-Egyptian. The NGO must submit a copy of its bylaws and membership to a newly created government steering committee for approval.

According to Article 10, NGOs should limit their work to “achieving the interests of the society,” vague wording that some say would allow the government wide authority to limit an NGO’s operations if it didn’t agree with its goals.

The proposed law makes a distinction between foreign and domestic NGOs, requiring foreign NGOs to submit all their funding sources to the steering committee.

Officials said the proposal reflected “the openness of Egypt,” though they declined to release it publicly. The draft will be released after the Shura Council, the only operating legislative body, votes on the law.

Several NGOs and human rights groups expressed concern that the proposed law is similar to the one in place during Mubarak’s years.

“There have been no major changes. It still gives the government the power to restrict their activities and cut off funding,” Heba Morayef, the Egypt director of the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, told the Reuters news agency. Morayef had seen a copy of the draft law.

McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report.

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