Proof of the pudding
The Ministry of Social Affairs has rejected two NGOs' applications for registration -- on security grounds. What does that mean for civil society, asks Mariz Tadros
The Ministry of Social Affairs has rejected the applications for registration of two human rights and advocacy NGOs -- the New Woman Research Centre and the Land Centre for Human Rights -- based on objections from the security bodies. The two organisations received letters from the Giza office of the Ministry of Social Affairs informing them of that fact, just as the deadline for registering NGOs expired on 4 June.
The New Woman Research Centre -- which had been functioning as a non-profit civil company since 1991 -- submitted its application on 6 April for registration as a foundation under Law 84. The NWRC was founded in 1984 by a group of feminist activists concerned with advocating women's rights through research, workshops and campaigns, and addressing issues such as violence against women, reproductive health rights and women's public image. The Land Centre for Human Rights -- established in 1996 as a non-profit civil company -- is dedicated to defending peasants' rights via the provision of legal assistance, the launching of support campaigns and other means.
Local and international human rights organisations have denounced the government's decision to reject the two groups' applications. This week, the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (a coalition of NGOs monitoring laws and policies related to civil activity) issued a statement expressing its concern over security bodies' increasing powers of intervention in determining the fate of NGO and trade union activities. A similar statement was issued last week by 18 Egyptian human rights and advocacy groups. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders also sent an open letter to President Hosni Mubarak expressing its concern. The letter said the observatory condemned any form of pressure that would be exerted by any security authority on the Ministry of Social Affairs in order to prevent the registration of a new NGO.
The observatory also called for the amendment of the current law governing NGOs and urged the government to uphold the rights and freedoms contained in the international covenants that have been ratified by the Egyptian government. Participants at a recently held conference in Beirut where Arab NGOs issued an Arab Covenant on Human Rights also condemned the move and said the decision was in violation of the NGO law.
The rejection letters received by the New Woman Research Centre and the Land Centre for Human Rights provided no details regarding why their organisations were considered a security threat. Nawla Darwish of the New Woman Research Centre, told the Weekly that no explanation was given, "and when we asked, they said they cannot give us any further information."
Ministry of Social Affairs officials contacted by the Weekly also said they could not provide any information about why the organisations were rejected. "These are issues we [the Ministry of Social Affairs] cannot broach," said Ibrahim El-Toukhy, who heads the ministry's central NGO department. "The ministry, however, has to respect whatever decision the security apparatus makes." Whenever citizens apply for the establishment of an association, their papers are automatically sent to the concerned security bodies, El-Toukhy explained, and only when the latter express their approval, can an association be established. He added that associations could still file a lawsuit appealing the decision -- if it is not to their liking -- in the specialised court.
Darwish suspects that the security reservations were based on the groups' founding members, some of whom have a long history of political activism, as well as an anxiety on the part of the powers-that-be over the role which these organisations have played in raising taboo issues and in openly criticising government policies.
NGOs whose applications are rejected are left with two options, suggests human rights activist Mohamed Hussein: either to file a lawsuit contesting the decision, or to reapply, but as civic associations. The New Woman Research Centre and the Land Centre for Human Rights have opted for the first course of action. "There is nothing in the NGO law which gives the security apparatus the right to object to the establishment of an association," said Karam Saber, the director of the Land Centre. "Further, if the ministry objects to the registration of an association, the law obliges it to give a substantiated reason why."
The lawsuit filed by the Land Centre will also contest the constitutionality of some of the law's articles, hoping that the administrative court will once again refer the matter to the Supreme Constitutional Court.
But rapid justice may not be around the corner. A lawsuit may take years to resolve, as in the case of the 1985 lawsuit filed by the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights against the Ministry of Social Affairs for rejecting its application for registration under Law 32. To this day, no ruling has been made on the case.
Until the lawsuits are resolved, the two organisations' status remains in limbo. They are no longer recognised legal entities, and if they continue to operate, their members are liable -- under the law's Article 76 -- to imprisonment for six months and a LE2,000 fine.
According to Saber, the Land Centre will continue to operate under the auspices of a civil company. "We will operate as a law firm, since we are all lawyers," Saber said. "There is nothing in the law to stop us from filing lawsuits on behalf of clients, and from publishing research papers and books on legal issues. The only way they [the government] can stop us from practicing law is to take away our syndicate membership." At the same time, Saber did admit that the group was considering the option of re-applying for registration as a civic association.
Hussein said human rights organisations that are registered as civic associations are likely to face extensive administrative intervention on the part of the Ministry of Social Affairs. The only positive indirect impact of registering as civic associations, he suggests, is that it may challenge these NGOs to expand their constituency on a grass-roots level in order to counter balance any possible measures undertaken by the government to introduce pro-government elements as a way of undermining an association's autonomy.
In any case, Hussein concluded, regardless of whether lawsuits are filed or associations seek re-registration, Law 84 has weakened civil society associations in Egypt, and greatly restricted their activity.