Sunday,09 December, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1418, (15 - 21 November 2018)
Sunday,09 December, 2018
Issue 1418, (15 - 21 November 2018)

Ahram Weekly

A new NGO law

Moves are underway to amend Egypt’s controversial NGO law, Gamal Essam El-Din reports

 

photo: Khaled Mashaal
photo: Khaled Mashaal

A committee, headed by Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali, is being formed to amend the controversial NGO law. “The committee will begin holding meetings next week to prepare for a national dialogue on amendments,” a source told Al-Ahram on Monday.

On 5 November President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi asked for a committee to be formed to hold hearing sessions on the NGO law with the goal of submitting an amended version to parliament. Al-Ahram reported that two scenarios exist: either to amend selected articles of the existing law or to adopt the law originally prepared by the Ministry of Social Solidarity in 2016. “Which option is chosen depends on the outcome of the anticipated national dialogue,” said Al-Ahram’s source. “The process is likely to take two months or so.”

“Upon the recommendation of the World Youth Forum held last week, and the instructions of President Al-Sisi, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli has decided a committee be formed to amend NGO Law 70/2017 in a manner that meets the aspirations of civil society which the government views as a partner in development,” read a statement issued following the weekly cabinet meeting on 7 November.

Cabinet Spokesperson Nader Saad said the committee will comprise representatives from the Ministries of Social Solidarity, Foreign Affairs and Justice.

“The committee will prepare for a national dialogue between the government and parliament on one side and civil society organisations on the other,” said Said.

The World Youth Forum, which ended on 6 November, passed 10 resolutions. Topping the list was a call to hold a comprehensive national dialogue to suggest amendments to the NGO law.

Al-Sisi had told forum participants that some of the laws articles were flawed, noting that “50,000 NGOs and civil society organisations operate in Egypt and are doing superb work” and the government was “keen to ensure that the law regulating their activities is balanced and lets them operate efficiently and effectively”.

The NGO law, passed in November 2016 and ratified by Al-Sisi in May 2017, attracted criticism abroad, particularly in the US Congress where some members demanded part of America’s economic assistance to Egypt be withheld to protest legislation they said undermined the activities of NGOs.

Mohamed Al-Ghoul, a member of parliament’s Human Rights Committee, told Al-Ahram Weekly the controversial law was mainly drafted by parliament’s Social Solidarity Committee.

“There was an attempt to strike a balance between national security concerns and freedom for civil society activities,” Al-Ghoul said. “The executive regulations of the NGO law have not yet been finalised so the law has yet to be implemented. Indeed, some MPs argue we should wait until the regulations are finished and the law had been applied so we can judge whether or not it restricts civil society activities.”

Al-Ghoul pointed out that President Al-Sisi has not specified which of the articles need to be changed though it is clear “he believes amending the NGOs will serve Egypt’s national security in the coming stage”.

Samir Ghattas, a political analyst and independent MP, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “senior state officials clearly took notice of the criticism levelled at the new NGO law and the way it negatively impacted the relationship between Egypt and the United States”.

“President Al-Sisi views the relationship with the US as strategic and therefore decided the law should be amended to contain Western criticisms.”

“The process of amending the law should be done in a way that is responsive to internal and external concerns.”

When the NGO law was first approved by parliament in November 2016, says Ghattas, MPs primary focus was on national security concerns. Abdel-Hadi Al-Qasabi, currently chairman of the majority Support Egypt coalition and head of the Social Solidarity Committee which finalised the draft, had insisted it must focus on foreign funding of NGOs because “foreign money granted to NGOs operating in Egypt has always been a source of funding for terrorists and subversive activities”.

During a visit to the US in the summer of 2017 Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal told Congress members the new NGO was not sacrosanct and could be changed. Abdel-Aal argued the law only targeted NGOs using foreign money to fund terrorist organisations or political activities that undermine the state. In an interview last month Al-Qasabi echoed that position, insisting the NGO law supports the work of credible NGOs.

“The law stipulates a national council regulating the performance of foreign NGOs be set up to supervise their licensing, work and activities,” said Al-Qasabi. “We should ask why some NGOs object to being supervised by this council. Why would they do so if they receive their money from legitimate sources and use it to fund development activities?”

Tadros Qaldas, a member of parliament’s Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee, told the Weekly “Al-Sisi’s decision to amend the law came after experts agreed some of its articles contravene the constitution”.

“The law is restrictive because it imposes prison sentences on those who violate its regulations and places NGOs on an unequal footing by discriminating against foreign NGOs,” he said

“The laws inclusion of custodial sentences violates Article 75 of the Constitution which states NGOs should be able to go about their businesses freely and without intimidation.”

Haitham Al-Hariri, a leading member of parliament’s 25-30 opposition bloc, told Ahram Online that “the NGO law adopted a suspicious view towards NGOs”.

“It placed obstacles in the way of setting up NGOs, claiming this was necessary to safeguard national security. We hope the emphasis will change and any amendments take on board the objections raised by NGOs. We want a more balanced law, in line with international conventions on civil society and human rights.”

Hafez Abu Seada, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), told Al-Ahram that the existing NGO law was drafted to intimidate foreign NGOs.

“The law contains a host of restrictive articles and stipulates prison sentences for certain offences. It led many foreign NGOs to withdraw from Egypt,” says Abu Seada. “And it is so complicated that the government has been unable to draft any executive regulations.”

The new law makes it incredibly difficult to license an NGO, adds Abu Seada.

“It embroils civil activists in endless red tape and demands LE10,000 in licensing fees. Yet the constitution states NGOs be formed only upon notification and that bureaucratic authorities should not intervene in their internal affairs in any way.”

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