Thursday,23 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)
Thursday,23 November, 2017
Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)

Ahram Weekly

NGOs under fire

The draft NGO law might not place a blanket ban on foreign funding but it ensures such money funds only activities of which the government approves, writes Gamal Essam El-Din

NGO
NGO
Al-Ahram Weekly

Government officials revealed this week that a preliminary draft of a new NGO (non-governmental organisation) law is complete. According to a statement issued on 10 October by Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali the draft will be forwarded to political parties, human rights organisations and concerned ministries for discussion in a bid to win consensus over its articles. “Once this dialogue is completed the final draft of the law will be submitted to parliament,” said Wali.

The draft, claimed Wali, fully complies with Article 75 of the new constitution, granting citizens the right to form civil society organisations on a democratic basis.

“NGOs will have the right to carry out activities freely. Administrative agencies will not be able to interfere in their affairs, dissolve their boards of directors or boards of trustees without a court judgement.”

The law, argued Wali, had been drafted in the spirit of the constitution and aimed to provide NGOs with the greatest possible freedom and independence. “We need NGOs to play a greater role in boosting development and human rights causes in Egypt and this cannot be achieved without providing them with an unprecedented margin of freedoms,” she said.

The draft, she added, also reflects the government’s commitment to international conventions and treaties on human rights endorsed by Egypt.

Whether the fine print of the draft lives up to such lofty ideals remains to be seen. Foreign NGOs, for one, are unlikely to be convinced.

They can be licensed, Wali explained, but only under certain conditions.

“The law stipulates that a higher coordinating committee be formed to take charge of licensing foreign NGOs and monitoring their activities. If the committee rejects a foreign application it will be required to give the reasons for the decision. And that decision can be appealed before the administrative courts within 60 days.”

Talaat Abdel-Qawi, chairman of the General Federation of NGOs, a third of whose members are presidential appointees, says that the draft does not place a blanket ban on foreign funding of NGOs.

“The law stipulates that for an NGO to receive foreign funding it must first report to the Ministry of Social Solidarity the names and nationalities of the funders, the amount of money provided, and it must show that this money will be directed towards activities that are in harmony with the social values and national interests of Egypt.”

When the constitution was discussed last January some members of the drafting committee complained of NGOs using foreign funding to finance terrorist activities. They had the Muslim Brotherhood in their sights, accusing the group of siphoning millions of dollars from countries like Turkey and Qatar to fund terrorist activities.

“If an NGO does get foreign funding,” says Abdel-Qawi, “it will be obliged to deposit the money in a local bank. It will be able to use the funds only with the prior approval of the Ministry of Social Solidarity.”

In December 2011, under the rule of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, 17 Egyptian and US NGOs were accused of using foreign money to fund activities harmful to national security. In 2012 the Muslim Brotherhood dominated parliament accused NGOs of using foreign funds to spread unrest and chaos. In June 2013, 43 NGO employees were tried – more than half in absentia – and given prison sentences for running unlicensed organisations, obtaining foreign funding and carrying out political activities without prior permits.

Mohamed Anwar Al-Sadat, chairman of the liberal Reform and Development Party and a member of the board of the General Federation of NGOs, stresses that the draft law must be subject to a wide-ranging national dialogue before it is issued. “We hope that this dialogue will begin as soon as possible and take as much time as possible so that when parliament convenes a broad consensus will have emerged among political parties over its articles,” said Sadat.

The first draft of the NGO law, says Wali, has already been seen by NGO representatives and members of the National Council for Human Rights.

The draft has been denounced by human rights activists and leading members of the NGO community who say it seeks to eliminate all but regime supporters from the public arena. They point out that the vast majority of NGOs in Egypt are dependent on foreign funding and that the draft law is an attempt to close them down. 

Mohamed Zarie, head of the Arab Organisation for Penal Reform, slammed the law as replicating the same mechanisms of repression as the 2002 law regulating NGOs promulgated by the Mubarak regime.

In July local rights groups, alarmed by leaks of the new law, said it singularly failed to reflect the democratic spirit of the new constitution passed by public referendum in January. They issued a statement claiming the draft would give the Ministry of Social Solidarity sweeping powers to suspend the activities of NGOs , and that the use of ambiguous language – proscribing any activity deemed to “threaten national security or unity or disrupt public order and morals” – was an open invitation to the authorities to persecute any civil society organisation that did not tow the regime’s line.

Wali insists that the law has been drafted to that NGO funding is transparent and NGOs are not used as a front for illegal activities. She told CBC television channel that “every country has the right to monitor illegal activities.”

“Absolute freedoms eventually lead to chaos and pose serious threats to national security. No one can doubt that Egypt has been a target of foreign interference for the last three years and NGOs provided fertile ground for this.”   (See Focus p.15)

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