Judges rule out compliance
The Judges' Club, a registered NGO, has decided not to comply with the new NGO law. What next, asks Mariz Tadros
More antagonism towards the infamous Law 84 regulating Egypt's 16,000 NGOs was voiced this week. This time opposition came not from human rights and advocacy organisations but from the Judges' Club, whose membership includes approximately 10,000 judges. This week, Zakareya Abdel-Aziz, head of the Judges' Club, announced that the club's general assembly has decided not to apply for registration under the new NGO law. A majority of the judges in all 28 branches of the Judges' Club voted not to comply with the new law. The last day for NGOs to apply for registration under the law in order to maintain their status as legal entities was 4 June.
The Judges' Club was established in 1939 under the NGO law in effect at that time. However, Abdel-Aziz told Al-Ahram Weekly that it is high time for the Judges' Club to seek an alternative legal umbrella given that they are not an NGO working in the realm of community development and that their membership and activities are more akin to those of a trade union. "In 1939, the judges did not think it was appropriate to establish a trade union in order to avoid being confused with the trade union movement of the time. They thought it would be more elegant to call it a club," he explained. The club's activities are three-fold: to act as a solidarity network for judges, to defend the independence of the judiciary and to advocate for the interests of the judges regarding pensions, promotions, travel facilities and other benefits. It is this third objective that Abdel-Aziz says conflicts with Article 11 of Law 84, which prohibits NGOs from engaging in activities undertaken by trade unions.
Ibrahim El-Toukhy, head of the central department for NGOs at the Ministry of Social Affairs, told the Weekly that the ministry has yet to decide on the course of action to be taken with respect to the Judges' Club. He reiterated the ministry's position that no NGO will be dissolved for failing to register. However, he said that any NGO that does not conform to the new law may face the dissolution of its board or the freezing of its activities, although he insisted that each NGO will be dealt with separately.
El-Toukhy explained that only two types of NGOs are exempted from Law 84. The first type are NGOs that were established under a special law, such as the Red Crescent Society, which is regulated by its own internal charter. The second are associations which operate under international agreements between a foreign party and the Egyptian government, such as many of the international development organisations. El-Toukhy says that, from a legal standpoint, all associations that were registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs need to conform to the new law -- including the Judges' Club. "Perhaps there is still the possibility of negotiating some sort of agreement with the Judges' Club. It is not too late for them to apply for registration," he added.
However, Abdel-Aziz insisted that no such application for registration will be made. He contends that Law 84 does not apply to the Judges' Club because its formation is tied to an international agreement. Egypt, he argued, is bound by the UN Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary, which recognises that judges have the right to form their own independent clubs. He added that in the last general assembly of the Judges' Club, members called for the club to be regulated by the Judicial Authority Law rather than the NGO Law. Justice Minister Farouk Seif El-Nasr announced at the beginning of the year that the Ministry of Justice is in the process of drafting a new judicial authority law which would include supervision of the Judges' Club within its mandate on the grounds that the club is a judiciary body and should not be regulated by the Ministry of Social Affairs. The reformed law is still under consideration and has yet to be passed by parliament, thus leaving the Judges' Club in a legal vacuum.
However, Abdel-Aziz insists that there is no going back. Although he emphasised that the Judges' Club has not been exposed to any administrative intervention or harassment from the Ministry of Social Affairs, the organisation is not immune from potential intervention given that the new law gives extensive powers to the ministry. He said that in 1969 the board was dissolved by the ministry after members of the Judges' Club issued a statement in which they blamed Egypt's defeat in 1967 on the lack of democracy in the country and called for an end to dictatorship. The ministry reacted swiftly by dissolving the board and appointing a new one. This action, Abdel-Aziz says, "undermines the principle of the independence and integrity of the judiciary".
El-Toukhy suggested that requiring the Judges' Club to comply with Law 84 is not an issue "of imposing the ministry's hegemony over the associations. If the club has its point of view, then the matter can be deliberated in court." He said that if the matter were referred to the Administrative Court, the ministry would respect any decision taken by the court. However, Abdel-Aziz said that only if the ministry takes legal action against them would they take the matter to the Administrative Court.
Nasser Amin, secretary-general of the Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession, said that if the matter is referred to court and the judges contest the law in terms of its applicability and its articles, Egypt's NGO sector as a whole would benefit. Amin suggests that if the judges contest the constitutionality of the law and if the Administrative Court refers the matter to the Supreme Constitutional Court, there is a possibility that Law 84 could be scrapped, as was the previous NGO law, Law 153, in 2000.