Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1137, 28 February - 6 March 2013
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1137, 28 February - 6 March 2013

Ahram Weekly

Civil society attacked

A new ministerial decree seeks to place NGOs under the government’s thumb, Mohamed Abdel-Baky reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

Last week’s ministerial decree banning Egyptian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from making any contact with “foreign entities” without first getting a green light from the security apparatus marks a new low in relations between civil society and the government of Prime Minister Hisham Kandil.
Immediately after the decree was issued the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs sent a letter to the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) notifying it of the new regulations, details of which have not yet been officially announced.
EOHR Director Hafez Abu Seada says the language of the letter was vague. “What is meant by foreign entities? The letter was not specific. Does it include international human rights organisations and UN bodies?” he asked.
Abu Seada said the EOHR received the letter after announcing its intention to monitor parliamentary elections scheduled to begin in April.
Amnesty International said the decree marks a nadir for freedom of association.
“NGOs in Egypt already face staggering restrictions, but this instruction is a new low,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.  
“It is a disturbing indicator of what may lie ahead for human rights groups in the government’s new law.”
“We fear that the authorities are yet again trying to push through legislation to stifle civil society to prevent criticism.”
In July 2011 the Egyptian government launched an investigation into the foreign funding of NGOs which led to a series of raids on international and local civil society groups in December of that year. Forty-three employees of international organisations were tried on charges of operating without official registration and obtaining foreign funding without government permission.
“The authorities must stop using independent civil society organisations as scapegoats for the ills of Egypt,” says Sahraoui. “Banning contacts with international entities invokes Mubarak-era practices with which the current president has pledged to break.”
“We are urging the Egyptian authorities to ensure that any legislation that replaces the current NGO law should be in line with international law, respect freedom of expression and freedom of association and be based on transparent consultations with human rights organisations and other NGOs.”
Tension between the government and civil society organisations has grown in recent weeks as a result of a new draft law proposed by the government regulating the legal status of NGOs. The draft, expected to be rubber stamped by the Shura Council before the coming parliamentary polls, has been criticised by activists for placing civil society under the direct control of government.
Mohamed Zaree, manager of the Egypt programme at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), accuses the draft law of seeking to reinforce the repressive framework that was the hallmark of the Mubarak regime’s dealings with NGOs for three decades.
The current draft, he says, seeks to nationalise civil society promoting government control over all funding. Under the proposed law, NGO funding will be overseen by several government agencies, including the Central Auditing Organisation and the Administrative Prosecution.
“This measure undermines the foundations of civil society as a space for citizens to organise themselves away from government institutions,” says Zaree. “The penal code is already sufficient to deal with any financial wrongdoing committed by any individual or group.”
The draft law prohibits foreign funding for NGOs except with the approval of the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs and allows the minister to reject any funding without stating reasons why. It also contains provisions that tighten the security apparatus’s control over NGOs’ operations via so-called steering committees.
The law, says Zaree, will make it impossible for foreign organisations to work in Egypt. It effectively bans any foreign organisations that receive funding from their home governments from working with local NGOs.  
“The proposed law is more restrictive than Law 84/2002 which is currently in force. It is more explicitly hostile to civil society than any legislation passed under Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Anwar Al-Sadat, Hosni Mubarak or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces,” says legal activist Negad Al-Boraai.
The law represents an attempt by President Mohamed Morsi’s government to exercise complete control of civil society and over NGOs, charges Al-Boraai. It violates international conventions that protect human rights and civil society.
Muslim Brotherhood official Helmi Al-Gazzar defended the draft law, claiming it was necessary to stop what he described as the “chaos of foreign funding”.
“We need to legalise the work of NGOs in order to ensure foreign aid is spent in a way that promotes Egypt’s interests and stability,” he said.

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