24 - 30 June 1999
Issue No. 435
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Demarcating between democracy and chaos
It has been a turbulent year for the minister of social affairs and insurance, Mervat Tellawi. Details of a new draft law on NGOs were leaked, provoking an outcry from dozens of NGOs. Consultations with the concerned parties ensued, and amendments were made. But when Law 153 of 1999 was finally passed by parliament last month, the NGOs cried foul, claiming that the government had reneged on its promises and that the final text was a recipe for draconian control over civil society. One hunger strike, a picket of parliament and countless communiqués later, the issue of the dispute is still far from clear.
Yet although she seems tired by the struggles of the past months, Tellawi remains unbowed. The elegance and tact of the distinguished diplomat -- she was Egypt's ambassador, first to Austria, then Japan -- have been placed at the service of the hard-minded advocate of women's rights, and of the right of the nations of the South to define the terms of the development process, rather than simply remain passive recipients of Northern aid.
In this, the first part of a two-part interview withAl-Ahram Weekly, Tellawi discusses the current stand-off between the NGOs and the government, explains the provisions of the new law and responds to its critics
Has the new NGO law brought new freedoms to civil society -- or placed it even more firmly under the government yoke? Social Affairs Minister Mervat Tellawi talks to Mariz Tadros about one of the burning questions of 1999
NGOs were very disappointed by the way in which Law 153 of 1999 was formulated and passed. You have pointed out that a long process of consultation took place between the ministry and NGOs, including human rights organisations, to produce the final draft. However, the NGOs believe that the final draft arrived at in January was substantially different from that which was passed by the People's Assembly -- for example, with respect to the registration process, which was to have been by notification, rather than requiring prior government authorisation.
This is absolutely untrue. If you look at both drafts, the one that we negotiated with [the NGOs] and the one submitted to parliament, you will see that there are only three places in which the government has made any changes which the NGOs could take issue with. There were also many other changes, most of them in the NGOs' favour.
The state council had to review the draft before it could be submitted to the cabinet and to parliament. It is their duty to make sure that the law is compatible with the constitution. It was they who reduced the number of founding members required to set up an NGO. The draft had stipulated 20 as the minimum number. It was the state council who reduced the figure to ten. But our critics never mention the positive changes.
Another positive amendment was introduced in parliament. It concerns how long people have to be members of an NGO before they are eligible to stand for election to the board of directors. Should it be a year or only six months? The parliament decided that a year is too long, and that it should be only six months, as in the syndicates law.
As for the amendments that [the NGOs] consider to be negative or restrictive, there are only three of any substance. One concerns one paragraph of article three on the dissolution of NGOs, which requests any NGO that is in the process of establishing a legal identity to register under the terms of this law, on pain of being ruled null and void. I think the whole of the present crisis stems from those three lines. They were introduced by the cabinet, but we had discussed them with the NGOs a year ago, last May, and they were so critical of them, that we withdrew them. Then they all thanked the ministry [for withdrawing them]. When we reintroduced them, the whole fuss started up again.
The NGOs feel that despite a lengthy process of consultation, the final product -- the law as it now stands -- is very different from what you had agreed upon with them.
It is the authority and the prerogative of the conseil d'état, the cabinet and the parliament, to add things to or delete things [from a draft law]. This is the case with any piece of legislation. There are always amendments at the last minute. It is these institutions' right. How can I say to the parliament: don't add anything, don't remove anything? I did not commit a crime, I did not betray them. It is a normal process. And don't tell me that the whole text has been completely changed. That is just not true.
As for the second contentious amendment, it concerns Article 11, which deals with the fields in which NGOs can work. [The NGOs] attacked this article, and accused the government of restricting the fields in which they can operate. But that is not true. If you read Article 11 carefully, you will see that we have used a list of negative restrictions, instead of specifying domains. [Previously, there] were seven domains in which NGOs could work. It was [the NGOs'] proposal that we should not specify domains [in the new law], but instead define the areas in which they cannot work. The four areas on which their work should not infringe are the constitution and paramilitary, political and syndicate activities.
Some clauses will not be included in the executive statute, such as Article 11. You have repeatedly assured the NGOs and the Egyptian people that the concept of "political activity", under the terms of the law, is narrowly defined, and in effect restricted to running in elections, seeking political power or the overthrow of the political system...
Or lobbying for the programme of one party against another.
However, there are concerns that if in future we were to have a minister of social affairs who was less liberal than yourself, he/she might interpret "political activity" in a different way -- that is, in a much broader manner -- and that in that case, he/she would have full authority to apply the law so as to place severe restrictions on NGO activities. There is nothing in the law requiring the executive statute to define what political activity entails. UN Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson expressed concern during her recent visit to Cairo over the broad language of the law. What is your viewpoint on this?
Listen, we are not in a state of conflict with our own society. The NGOs are made up of our citizens. They are our partners in development. It is not a war. We have gone so far in liberalising the economy, why should we remain a closed society? To do so makes no sense. It goes against the whole philosophy and policy of the government.
"I cannot turn down an application to establish an NGO, unless the applicant has a criminal record. With that one exception, all applications will be accepted."
But what if a minister were to be appointed after you who had a less liberal interpretation of the law and wanted to define "political activity" as he/she saw fit?
Listen, this law has been defended by four different ministers, not just the minister of social affairs. That indicates the kind of commitment it represents on the part of the government. The prime minister came and addressed the parliament [on this subject]. So this is not just a one-man show or the philosophy of one minister. That is not true. It is a commitment by the government.
The dividing line between what is exclusively political, and thus belongs to the political parties, on the one hand, and [the activities of] the syndicates and the NGOs on the other, is very clear in our mind. What we didn't have [before the new law] was this dividing line. So an NGO would go and bring EgyptAir out on strike and ask for the salaries of the pilots to be raised. What is the difference between this NGO and a syndicate? What is the role of the syndicate then? Either you choose to be a syndicate, or you choose to be an NGO.
But some people still say this language is very broad.
The executive statute will deal with that.
Will it determine what kinds of political activity will be allowed and which will not?
We will try to reassure the people that we do indeed mean what we say. There is a lack of confidence. The journalists are all behaving as if they had found a way to catch the government out. I expected that after the two years of sessions and drafting and chairing, people would have been expressing their gratitude and appreciation.
But will the executive statute define precisely what kinds of political activity are allowed and which are not?
Maybe. There is a committee working on it right now, so I can't tell you yet. But we will definitely listen to the opinions of the NGOs, and we will do our best to reassure the people that we mean well.
We are not afraid of political activity. [The NGOs] can't do more than the opposition parties do already, so what's the big deal?
You have repeatedly asserted that political rights have been over-emphasised within the field of human rights. Mary Robinson has said that this debate over economic and social rights on the one hand, and political and civil rights on the other, strikes her as artificial. Can we really afford to separate these two kinds of rights, if we wish to achieve true development?
I don't believe that we should differentiate and divide. Human rights are universal rights. They constitute a single entity. Human beings need to enjoy political, civil, social and cultural rights, all at the same time. And this has always been Egypt's position in the United Nations since the Cold War began.
The division [on this issue] was invented by the superpowers, not by us. It was the Americans versus the Soviets. The one had political rights as its baby, the other socio-economic rights. So human rights became very polarised.
If only [the great powers] would give human rights a chance, instead of using them as a political weapon to wield against one another, then we wouldn't have all these massacres around the world.
In Egypt, we have a long history of NGOs working in the area of charity, which connects with economic and social issues. But the human rights movement which is involved in defending political rights is relatively young. So some critics feel that in the Egyptian case, political rights are not over-emphasised -- indeed, the reverse.
Egyptian human rights organisations are well established. Maybe there are fewer of them than of the rest, but many of the fourteen thousand organisations define human rights as socio-economic rights. We have an NGO, for example, that protects women who fall pregnant out of wedlock, right up until they give birth. We have an NGO, whose headquarters are right next door to my office, that works with prostitutes. This is the highest form of human rights activity.
Also, under the old law, the Council for Foreign Relations was established. This is an organisation specifically established to talk politics! [Foreign Minister] Amr Moussa was addressing it only yesterday. It is an NGO.
That brings us to the question of who is allowed to work and under what conditions. Is the decision as to which human rights NGOs are allowed to operate an arbitrary one?
I cannot turn down an application to establish an NGO, unless the applicant has a criminal record. With that one exception, all applications will be accepted.
At the press conference, you mentioned one of the human rights organisations which is working against the practice of torture. They are lobbying the Ministry of the Interior on behalf of the prisoners whose rights they want to defend. You said that they behaved as if they were oblivious of the efforts of the Ministry of Social Affairs to provide these people's families with financial assistance. Does this mean that advocacy work is less important than charity?
No, that is not what I meant. I meant that they were not telling us anything new. They think that we will prevent them from registering because they promote the rights of detainees. I told them this is not a new situation. In this ministry we have a department and budget to help these people. Maybe we don't publicise our activities as much as they would, but we do offer real concrete help. There are people who feel that such real service can help the families of the detainees more than just criticising the Ministry of the Interior for detaining them in the first place.
Okay, [maybe these NGOs have a point,] but that is another story. They are not helping the detainees. They may be advocating education for the officers who deal with them, so that they learn not to use force against them. This was what people were referring to in the debate in parliament, when they said that promoting human rights does not mean just picking on the negatives and forgetting about everything else.
I am not against advocacy. In the ministry, we are advocating the rights of women, and children, and senior citizens, all the time.
Article 17 prohibits all foreign funding without the prior permission of the Ministry of Social Affairs. However, in the consultation process, there were suggestions made that NGOs be allowed to accept funding from UN agencies as well as affiliates of international organisations and national missions of foreign countries based in Egypt. Why was this suggestion rejected?
Article 17 was already part of the previous law. In the new law, foreign funding is allowed with permission, even if it is locally based, as long as it is coming from an identifiable foreign entity.
We used to have a problem with people who lived in Egypt, but who did not belong to Egyptian or Arab organisations, donating funds without us being able to determine where those funds were coming from. Most of the fundamentalist activities were funded in this way.
According to Article 68 of the new NGO law, "the general federation of associations and NGOs shall be run by a board of directors composed of thirty members. The chairman and ten members shall be appointed by the president and the remaining members shall be elected from among the members of the associations and NGOs subject to this law." There are some who believe that a non-governmental federation should indeed be non-governmental, without any government-appointed officials -- least of all, its chairman. What is your opinion?
These appointees are not government [employees]. The new law stipulates that the president will only nominate one third of the members and the chairman. The rest are elected by the Federation. Moreover, the members appointed by the president will not necessarily be government employees.
But the current head of the Federation is a former government employee.
Yes, but he is a former government employee. He only draws a pension.
Many NGOs have questioned the philosophy and spirit of the articles of the law concerning penalties. Some have suggested that the existing criminal law should be sufficient to punish any violations. What is your view on this?
The existing penal code is not sufficient. It has failed to deal with cases in which people registered organisations offshore, or registered them illegally within the country. We discovered, for instance, that a plumber had registered to create a syndicate for journalists! What kind of country would this be if we simply left people to mix and match different parts of different laws at their own convenience?
So the purpose of the penalties is to deter NGOs from registering as non-profit civil companies?
Yes. And to deter any other person who is planning to defy the law or take advantage of gaps in it. People have used the gap in the companies law to create non-profit civil companies for which they then work as volunteers.
Why? If the country has a law for volunteers, why don't we use it? Why don't they respect the law of their country?
The article concerning penalties in the law stemmed from exactly this kind of experience. People do not respect the law -- neither the NGO law, nor the syndicate law, nor the party law. They just mix and match as they like. So now we have a law that is mandatory for everyone.
There is an impression in some organisations that, when seen in the context of the political parties law, the trade union law, the white collar union law and the press law, the new NGOs law is just one more measure to inhibit civil activity. Some people feel that the only kinds of civic activity that are permissible now are making money and doing charity. How then, they wonder, can an Egyptian citizen exercise his or her civic responsibility?
There are people who like to mix up lots of different things and blame them all on this new NGO law. What do they want? They want the syndicate to be monopolised by one group rather than another.
Bringing law and order to the country does not mean you are curtailing freedom. I think we have made great strides towards democracy in this country. So I don't agree with these criticisms. These people are really ungrateful when they say this law is restrictive, because it is in fact a huge step forward.
There is a difference between a responsible democracy and freedom, on the one hand, and chaos on the other. These critics are people who want confusion in everything.
Why should an NGO issue work certificates to people? That is what one of them was doing: they were giving out certificates to certain religious men, so that they could be preachers in the mosque. That is not an NGO's job. What right does an NGO have to challenge the policies of Al-Azhar? Is that their domain?
They should not invade the domain of the Ministry of Education, or Al-Azhar, or EgyptAir, and then claim that they are just doing "NGO work". In Egypt, we tend to exceed the limit. We don't stop before authority. We are not a disciplined people. We each of us have limits and we should respect them. But instead, we all insist on treading on each other's feet.
So what are these limits?
Act according to the law. Follow the law. Respect the law of the country. If you are a good citizen, you should follow the law. But instead, these people just shout and say that the law is against freedom. What they are asking for is chaos.
Some critics believe that the government is using the need to maintain stability and security as an excuse to curtail efforts at advocacy and lobbying. For example, you mentioned that NGOs should not invade the domain of the Ministry of Education. But is it not their right to advocate changes in educational policy, when they see them as important for development?
I am not against advocacy. The NGOs can advocate changes in people's mentalities. They can work to change wrong ideas among the people.
But this is awareness, not advocacy. What if they want to advocate changes in government policies which stem from their experiences in the field?
They are doing it all the time. In any case, they cannot do more than you are already doing in the press.
In previous statements, you said that opposition to the law came from only a few human rights organisations, who were no more than 12 in number. What about the Forum for the Promotion of NGOs, which brings together many NGOs working in development, including one of the oldest organisations in Egypt, the Upper Egypt Association for Development and Education which is registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs ?
The opposition to the new law came mainly from those organisations which were registered outside the old law. They were afraid they would have to close down. In solidarity with them, Amin Fahim of the Upper Egypt Association, together with anyone else who knew how to raise their voice, took their side.
After all, the 104 associations [that make up the NGO Forum], out of 14,600 NGOs in the country as a whole, what does that make? Point zero one of a per cent!
Out of those fourteen thousand, how many do you think are active?
We have not surveyed all of them, but I would say that roughly 60 per cent are active.
Egypt is not afraid of advocacy. We have a long-standing record in human rights that we should all be proud of. Egypt was one of the few nations involved in drafting the charter of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945. Egypt was a rapporteur general for the Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. We have signed many conventions which countries such as the US have not yet signed, such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
Nor has the US yet signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Egypt, moreover, was the initiator of the concept of the right to development. We also initiated the idea of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Women and Children in Times of Conflict. I myself submitted the first report on this idea, as a result of Egypt's experience in 1967.
I am not saying we have achieved all we should. There is a general awareness of the importance of human rights. But we cannot change everything in a few days, or even years. Given our record in human rights, we have no reason to be afraid of advocacy or of any groups who want to speak out about human rights. On the contrary, we would like to educate our people, to teach them that fathers should not beat up their children.
And that officials should not beat up prisoners?
For example. I have been involved in human rights issues for more than thirty years. If you are a real advocate of human rights, then you have to respect all human rights.
To do as Amnesty International does, and concentrate on only a few issues to the exclusion of the rest, is not a proper way of looking at human rights.
There are thirty rights in the UN Declaration, and you have to respect all of them, not just pick and choose.