Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
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Turning a new leaf

By Mariz Tadros

Amina El-GuindiThe executive regulations of NGO Law 153 are finally out. At a news conference on Sunday, Social Affairs Minister Amina El-Guindi read out a summary of the regulations, but the full text was not released. Unlike the last heated news conference held by former Social Affairs Minister Mervat Tellawi, which allowed for several hours of questions and debate, the latest news conference was quiet and uneventful.

After giving a brief summary of the executive regulations, El-Guindi announced that "they are greatly flexible" and that "what counts is not the provisions themselves, but implementation." The Ministry of Social Affairs, El-Guindi said, would implement the law in accordance with a spirit that recognises the role of civil society as a partner in human development and is committed to revitalising voluntary work in the society.

The new regulations will turn "a new leaf for relations between NGOs and the government and pave the way for a joint partnership," El-Guindi pledged, adding, "If there had been any misunderstandings during the drafting of the law or its executive regulations, now things are clear."

Fathi Naguib, adviser to the minister of justice, stressed that the executive regulations highlight the steps of implementation and, by that, put to rest all the objections to the ambiguity of the law's language. On the definition of activities of a political nature prohibited by the law, the regulations explicitly confined them to those deemed constitutionally prohibited, such as formation of military groups or militias, threatening national unity, disturbing public order, advocating discrimination for reasons related to sex, origin, colour, language, creed or religion and carrying out activities which are the prerogative of political parties and professional syndicates. These were defined as claiming against employers the rights of employees in a specific trade, and granting licenses or certificates required for the exercise of a certain profession.

Omar Abdel-Akher, head of the General Federation of NGOs and former Cairo governor, argued that NGOs no longer have an excuse for not doing their work, on the grounds that the old law was restrictive because Law 153 and its executive regulations have removed all bureaucratic obstacles.

About 15 minutes only were allowed for questions, before the minister brought the news conference to a close. The conference room was half-empty anyway, with many journalists complaining that they had been informed that the conference was going to take place that same morning.

Amir Salem, director of the Legal Research Centre for Human Rights and one of the NGO representatives who were invited to take part in drafting the executive regulations, believes that the regulations are a drastic improvement on the law itself. "In areas where the law was ambiguous, the committee was able to push for more liberal and open clauses of implementation. At the end of the day, Social Affairs Ministry bureaucrats will be looking at the executive regulations and not the law," he said.

The regulations, he added, cited examples of permissible activities, such as involvement in raising citizens' awareness of their legal, constitutional and social rights, "so that a bureaucrat who is not familiar with these concepts knows that they are allowed under this law."

Salem, however, conceded that there were articles in Law 153 which were impossible to interpret liberally in the executive regulations, because these articles specifically imposed certain restrictions, most significantly, the registration of NGOs and their right to receive foreign funding.

"This promises to be the bone of contention, or the real problem between NGOs and the ministry in the implementation of this law," Salem said.

Nasser Amin, a lawyer with the Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession, argued that the executive regulations cannot be "progressive or representative of the NGOs' demands when the NGO law itself is oppressive." The executive regulations still give the Ministry of Social Affairs unlimited rights to interfere administratively in NGO affairs, he suggested, and this is because these rights are enshrined in the very law.

Prior to the People's Assembly's approval of Law 153, many NGOs had protested against the law's contents which they deem to be restrictive to civil activity. The protests included a hunger strike, sit-ins, conferences, a picket of parliament and the collection of hundreds of signatures against the law.

The Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession, together with six other NGOs, issued a statement two days before the release of the executive regulations announcing plans to file a lawsuit against Tellawi for allegedly "deceiving the People's Assembly and public opinion".

The statement, charging that amendments introduced by the State Council to the draft law were concealed from the People's Assembly, was sent to Prime Minister Atef Ebeid. Amin explained that the last version of the law which the State Council saw was that of 16 January. "That version was the one that NGOs had the least reservations against, because it reflected many of the ideas and suggestions they had made during the consultative meetings with Tellawi," he said. "When that version was presented to the State Council, it suggested two major amendments which were neither brought to the attention of the People's Assembly nor to civil society in general."

The first proposed amendment was to lift all administrative restrictions on the right to form associations, since these restrictions are a violation of Article 55 of the Constitution (which affirms that any two or more people have the right to form an association, as long as it is not of a para-military nature). The State Council suggested that the ministry cannot refuse to register an NGO, but can only ask for registration to be delayed until the dispute is looked into by a court-of-law. The approved law stipulates a series of conditions which NGOs must meet in order to be able to register.

The second amendment proposed by the State Council, according to the NGOs' statement, emphasised the jurisdiction of administrative courts, as opposed to courts of first instance, over disputes between associations and the Ministry of Social Affairs.

"The amendment proposed by the State Council is important in guaranteeing a fair hearing for NGOs, because judges serving with courts of first instance do not have an in-depth knowledge of administrative law, compared to judges serving with administrative courts", explained Amin.

The seven NGOs believe that the draft that was presented to the People's Assembly was radically different from that which was passed on to the State Council for revision. "We believe that the draft reviewed by the State Council was scrapped altogether, an alternative draft was formulated and revised by the cabinet and passed to the assembly", said Amin.

Now that the executive regulations have been released, all NGOs, have to register or re-register with the Ministry of Social Affairs.

The NGOs already registered under the previous law have only some simple administrative procedures to follow.

Human rights organisations, however, will have to register with the Ministry of Social Affairs or face dissolution and a declaration of illegality. NGOs who had not wished to register with the ministry under the old law used to register as civil companies, but this option has been closed by the new law.

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