20 - 26 July 2000
Issue No. 491
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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No need for panic?By Mariz Tadros
Saadeddin Ibrahim's predicament has reminded NGOs that their relationship with the government is not only governed by an NGO Law, be it Law 153 of 1999, which was declared unconstitutional, or its predecessor, Law 32 of 1964. There is also a military decree, issued in 1992, to contend with.
This decree prohibits any individual or institution from collecting or receiving funds without the permission of the Ministry of Social Affairs. Those who do not have this permission must furnish the ministry, within 15 days, with information concerning the amount received and how it is to be used. Violators face a minimum jail sentence of seven years. Ibrahim was taken into custody on the authority of this decree, as well as Penal Code provisions.
According to Hafez Abu Se'da, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), the application of this decree means, in actual practice, a freeze on civil society action. Activists are prone to being arrested and accused of receiving funds without prior official permission.
However, Mohamed Abdel-Moneim, deputy minister for Civic Associations at the Ministry of Social Affairs, told Al-Ahram Weekly that there is no need to panic. He explained that since Law 153 of 1999 was declared unconstitutional, Law 32 of 1964 was brought back to life and it will govern applications from registered NGOs to receive foreign funding. As for non-profit civil companies, they will have to seek permission from the ministry before accepting foreign funds. Although the military decree does not set deadlines, "the Ministry of Social Affairs would usually respond within 15 to 30 days," he said.
According to Abdel-Moneim, not one non-profit civil company had sought the ministry's permission to accept foreign funding and was turned down, "unless the funds are for purposes that are not positive." The military decree is applicable to NGOs that are registered as civil companies and those who have applied for registration and have not been accepted yet, but not to those previously registered with the ministry, he said.
But a reading of the text of the military decree does not appear to draw a distinction between registered and non-registered NGOs. Human rights organisations now fear the government may choose to invoke the decree against whoever it wishes. As a result, many have stopped receiving foreign funds. Abu Se'da said ever since the EOHR has decided to stop receiving foreign funds two years ago, it has incurred a debt of LE24,000 in delayed salaries and rent. The EOHR's board of directors decided last week to invite members to make donations. However, the organisation's future remains precarious, he said.
Many organisations face a similar predicament. The Legal Research and Resource Centre for Human Rights, according to its director, Amir Salem, "is hanging between heaven and earth." The centre has not shut down, but is barely surviving after its sources of financing has dried up.
Salem said the centre decided to stop accepting foreign funds last August. "We have books in print that had to be stopped because we don't have the money to pay for it. Many staffers had to take a long leave of absence and part-timers had to leave," he said. The centre applied for registration with the Ministry of Social Affairs, under the now-defunct Law 153, as the "National Association for Human Rights." Approval has yet to be granted the centre and, consequently, its status remains in limbo.
"Attempting to raise funds as a non-profit civil company can have catastrophic consequences," Salem said. He lashed out at the government for "singling out human rights organisations under the pretext of fighting corruption, while other recipients of foreign aid, such as business associations, are left unchecked."
Ambassador Soleiman Awwad, assistant to the foreign minister, does not believe that Ibrahim's arrest was intended to scare civil society. Ibrahim was taken into custody because of irregularities in his management of financial resources, he said.
Awwad argued that auditing and accountability are internationally recognised and civil society should not be immune to them. "No one should fear as long as he or she is on the right side of the law, seeking prior authorisation from the Ministry of Social Affairs," he said. He asserted the government is keen on promoting the role of NGOs and civil society and does not seek in any way to "scare foreign donors off."
Salem said many foreign donors, out of fear of antagonising the Egyptian government, have adopted policies which require NGOs to be registered to be eligible for funds. This, he pointed out, automatically excludes human rights organisations, which are registered as non-profit civil companies.
Marie Asaad, an activist and development expert, told the Weekly that she has strong faith in the judicial system, but the anti-Ibrahim press campaign has caused confusion in civil society. "We don't understand what is going on and what the inside story is," she remarked.
Many development workers and activists, contended Asaad, feel insecure in the absence of a consistent government policy on civil society. Many, she said, are now asking themselves: "How do I know I won't be next?"
Missing the point
Piling up the charges
Off the books