The Times Looks at New Egyptian Law to Crackdown on Civil Society

Human Rights Groups in Egypt Brace for Crackdown Under New Law
The New York Times
By David D. Kirkpatrick

CAIRO — Egyptian rights advocates and nonprofit groups are bracing for a crackdown and fleeing the country, but the official who oversees them says there is nothing to fear.

It depends in large part on how prosecutors will apply a sweeping law decreed by the new military-backed president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, as a tool to fight terrorism. Rights activists say the new rule is a sign that the crackdown on dissent following last year’s military takeover is making Egypt a stricter and more repressive police state than at any other time in the last 35 years.

“Everyone in civil society is panicking,” said Ragia Omran, a prominent human rights lawyer.

The new law imposes a potential life sentence for the crime of intending to “harm the national interest,” “compromise national unity” or “breach security or public peace,” if it involves receiving money from abroad. Foreign funding is how virtually every credible human rights group here has subsisted for decades because of the legal and practical obstacles to domestic fund-raising under Egypt’s authoritarian governments.

In an interview this week, the official in charge of nonprofit groups, Ghada Waly, the minister of social solidarity, said the judicial authorities had assured her that the law would apply only to those using foreign funding “for terrorist attacks and terrorist activities and destabilizing activities.”

“What seems to be general to the general public is not general to a court of law,” she said. “It is very specific and has its definition.”

But lawyers and rights advocates say prosecutors and judges may stretch those definitions broadly, just as they have often defined “terrorism” very broadly during the crackdown.

Ms. Omran said that under the new law, a freelance journalist paid by a Western news organization for an article critical of Mr. Sisi could be charged with using foreign funding to compromise national unity. “That example may seem far-fetched, but with what is going on now in Egypt, who knows?” she said. “We are going through a fascistic time.”

Some advocates said prosecutors might use the law to detain an organization’s staff members for many months before a court rules on the charges.

“A court can dismiss the case, but after a long time has gone by in detention,” said Nasser Amin, founder of a nonprofit group called the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession. (For unclear reasons, the Ministry of Social Solidarity has suggested that to obtain a necessary license, he should change the name to the Association for the Support of Justice.)

Ms. Waly, a veteran of the United Nations Development Program and the antipoverty group CARE, said the new government wanted to encourage and support nongovernmental organizations. “This is a government that believes we cannot do it alone, and we are very open to national and international N.G.O.s,” she said.

The minister noted that the current government had not yet arrested anyone or used its regulations on nonprofits to shut down any organization. She said she was seeking to regulate nonprofit groups more strictly in part to dispel fears among Egyptians about “international funding being misused and some N.G.O.s abusing foreign funding.”

Many rights advocates attribute those fears to xenophobic demagogy in the state-run and pro-government news media. Ms. Waly attributed them to “justifiable concerns” about the willingness of some friendly Western nations to accept the government of President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the elected leader ousted by Mr. Sisi.

“Society is very worried about what they see as a conspiracy around them in the region, so we need to appease those fears,” she said.

Some unregistered nonprofits had also sought to “misuse or abuse” or even “embezzle” their funding, she said. Some groups engage in fraud, she said, like orphanages that overstate their numbers to siphon off funds.

“Transparency will appease all those fears,” Ms. Waly said. “This is a new era.”

In addition to the new law on foreign funding, Mr. Sisi’s government has begun a drive to enforce for the first time a system for regulating nonprofit groups that was written into law 12 years ago, under President Hosni Mubarak. It was seldom and selectively applied before, and its onerous requirements were used as a way to threaten advocacy groups if they challenged the state.

The existing law ostensibly requires any organization that engages in a nonprofit’s activities — whether as a charity, community association or advocacy group — to register with the Ministry of Social Solidarity or cease activities. Operating without a registration is punishable by jail time, and the authorities can disband a group if it is deemed to have affiliated with an international organization, or to have threatened “national unity” and “public order.”

But so far almost no credible rights group has been allowed to register, and under Mr. Mubarak many applications were held in limbo for years with no response.

Once registered, a group must then obtain a second permit to conduct domestic fund-raising or a specific approval for each foreign grant it receives — often cumbersome procedures that give the government more leverage against dissent. (International rights groups must apply for special licenses in a more difficult process through the Foreign Ministry.)

Ms. Waly said the procedures had been streamlined to eliminate “negative practices” of the Mubarak government, like making organizations wait years for responses. And she said the registration would be denied only for a narrow list of specific reasons, like political partisanship or putting convicted criminals on a board. This year, Ms. Waly said, she has approved 686 specific grants from international donors to 281 Egyptian nonprofit groups for a total of $87 million.

But for those with a track record of operating in Egypt or abroad, subjective judgments about whether a group is “credible,” “unbiased” or “dishonest” might also play a role in the government’s decisions, she suggested.

Such issues have already come up with at least one group. In August, several Human Rights Watch officials were turned away at the Cairo airport on a visit to deliver a report accusing the Egyptian authorities of abuses during the crackdown on the Islamist opposition last year.

In a statement, the government accused the group of “well-known biases” and “a lack of credibility,” charging that it had conducted research in Egypt without authorization and interfered in a judicial process — both crimes punishable by jail time under Egyptian law.

Several other Egyptian and international human rights groups have since pulled out of Egypt or scaled back their activities, saying they feared criminal prosecution for criticizing the government.

“Many respected N.G.O.s working on human rights and legal reform now face closure and possible criminal prosecution of their staff” because of a government crackdown, the Carter Center said in a statement announcing the closing of its Egyptian office. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies said that after 20 years, it was relocating much of its work to Tunis “in light of the ongoing threats to human rights organizations and the declaration of war on civil society.”

Three years ago, the security forces shut down three American-backed groups chartered to promote democracy: Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.

Dozens of their employees were convicted of receiving unauthorized foreign funding for unregistered nonprofit groups amid unproven allegations that they had conspired to sow chaos in Egypt. The United States government paid as much as $4.6 million in forfeited bail to sneak almost all the groups’ American employees out of the country, and the Egyptians received suspended sentences of a year in prison.

Ms. Waly, who was appointed after those convictions, declined to comment on the cases. But she insisted that the new government was committed to abiding by the rule of law, and that nonprofit groups must do so as well.

“Every country has its laws and its procedures,” she said. “For instance, in the U.S., you cannot smoke in a hospital. Is this personal freedom? Is this a human right or not? This is a rule and you have to respect it.”

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