Egypt’s civil society has been under severe crackdown by the government and the new non-governmental (NGO) law will continue this trend. Egypt’s new NGO law, Law 149 of 2019, is a reflection of Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s repressive attitudes towards non-governmental organisations including human rights and advocacy groups. Pressured by both domestic and international criticisms to alter the previous law, Sisi’s approval of the Ministry of Social Solidarity’s updated version of Law 70 of 2017 has ironically been met by the same criticisms despite very few positive modifications.
MEPP has captured around 20 publications on Egypt’s civil society developments. The purpose of this analysis is to showcase the coverage of the international think tanks of the lack of progression of Egypt’s laws on civil society. The flow of this analysis will begin with a brief look into Law 84 of 2002, to an in-depth view of both Law 70 of 2017 and the new updated Law 149 of 2019. Based on the summaries of renowned international think tanks, the new NGO law, despite the claims made by the government, is not an improvement to the previous two legislations.
DEJA VU: LAW 84 OF 2002 AND LAW 70 OF 2017
Before the controversial Law 70 of 2017, Law 84 of 2002 provided governance over civil society. Similarly to the two following laws, the essence of Law 84 of 2002 was to give government officials increasing surveillance powers to prevent NGOs to influence or exercise social reform and political change. (1) As a result, most organisations that were involved in advocacy and research signed up as firms or companies rather than NGOs to avoid these caveats. (2) After the revolution in 2011, civil society and the government had obvious opposing views towards changing the law; the government proved successful and Law 70 of 2017 was eventually ratified.
Growing on the trend of repression, Law 70 of 2017 granted government officials greater control of civil society. Notable provisions surrounding both domestic and foreign NGOs included: required to comply with the law within a year or else potentially be dissolved as consequence (3), needed permission from officials to be able to receive foreign funding (4), and prevented to freely engage in activities such as field work or surveys or anything that “may cause harm to national security, law and order, public morals or public health.” (5) On top of these caveats, the government has also used different mechanism to restrict the functions of NGOs.
In addition to the repressive nature Law 70 of 2017, the regime has used other legal pathways to intensify the crackdown of NGOs. Amnesty International notes that cybercrime and media laws were approved in 2018 which has led to the government blocking at least 500 websites including those of human rights organizations. (6) Further, since the military coup in 2013, the Egyptian regime has put thousands into pre-trial detention without due process, by for example, using the loosely worded anti-terrorism law to deter the functions of NGOs. (7) (8) But, the most notable action taken by authorities came in the Foreign Funding case beginning in 2011, where “43 Egyptian and non-Egyptian civil society workers, including 16 Americans, were sentenced to between one and five years in prison on charges of illegally receiving foreign funds and operating without a license.” (9) It was not until December of 2018 that the international and domestic civil society workers were acquitted. However, this exoneration has not prevented the Egyptian regime to question, freeze assets, and impose travel bans on domestic civil society workers. (10)
Law 70 of 2017 was faced with international scrutiny as it contradicted Egypt’s constitution and international obligations. Article 75 of Egypt’s Constitution states that “Citizens have the right to form non-governmental organizations and institutions on a democratic basis, which shall acquire legal personality upon notification. They shall be allowed to engage in activities freely. Administrative agencies shall not interfere in the affairs of such organizations, dissolve them, their board of directors, or their board of trustees except by a judicial ruling.” (11) What has happened as Amnesty International points out is that NGOs have had to seek permission from officials for legal recognition rather than simply notifying. (12) In terms of international obligations, the law goes against both the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Arab Charter on Human Rights. (13) Further, instead of following the letter of the law, the government had practically put plenty of provisions to make the formation of and activities of NGOs harder to achieve. Unfortunately, the same contradictions and criticisms can be made with the NGO law.
Article 75 of Egypt’s Constitution
“Citizens have the right to form non-governmental organizations and institutions on a democratic basis, which shall acquire legal personality upon notification. They shall be allowed to engage in activities freely. Administrative agencies shall not interfere in the affairs of such organizations, dissolve them, their board of directors, or their board of trustees except by a judicial ruling.”
“NEW” NGO LAW? LAW 149 OF 2019
The new NGO law, (Law No. 149 of 2019) is a poor attempt by the current regime to change a law that was widely criticized for its restrictiveness. According to various international think tanks, the new NGO law has few improvements despite maintaining the repressive nature of the former Law 70 of 2017. (14), (15), (16), (17) These improvements come as the new NGO law eliminates the penalty of prison sentences to fines depending on the nature of the violation and removes a regulation body created by the previous Law 70 of 2017 which served as a strong monitoring mechanism. (18) Further improvements include a reduced fee for both Egyptian and international NGOs to operate and the dismissal of an NGO tax. (19) However, these small changes do not outweigh the repressive nature of the law.
Despite these minor improvements, the new NGO law follows the footsteps of its younger legislations. In terms of forming an organisation, the government is still given broad discretion to suspend licenses if it determines the organisation will conflict with national interests or if it does not list its every move to officials. (20) To illustrate, the government can reject an entity if they deem it to “harm national unity” or “disturb public order”. (21) Furthermore, officials can suspend licenses for minor administrative errors. (22) In other words, these vague wordings and wide discretion will allow officials to dismiss an organisation if their work is deemed to go against the government’s rhetoric.
Consequently, this will restrict the type of work and fundraising that these organisations are willing to do. Field work and opinion surveys, teaming up with and obtaining funds from foreign entities, and all fundraising events will have to be given the green light by government officials. (23) Furthermore, per the law, the funds of NGOs are ‘public’ allowing any citizen to ask officials for an investigation of how these funds are being used. (24) Hence, it is evident that the purpose of these provisions is to limit the strength of NGOs to counter the state’s rhetoric. According to various signatory organizations such as the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and Egyptian Front for Human Rights, the new NGO law is “simply a rebranding of the current repressive law”. (25)
“Simply a rebranding of the current repressive law”Various signatory organizations on the new NGO law
Ultimately, numerous provisions preventing NGOs from any space to work independently and exercise sovereignty have remained in the new law. The government has made the supervision of these organisations a priority by making them list their every move and restricting their work. Even with the new NGO law (Law No. 149 of 2019), one that in the eyes of the government is supposedly an improvement to previous legislations, the climate in which NGOs will be working in is one of precarity.
(8), (14), (19), (20), (22), (23), (24) https://pomed.org/fact-sheet-egypts-new-ngo-law-as-draconian-as-the-old-one/
(17), (18), (21) https://timep.org/reports-briefings/draft-ngo-law-of-2019/