The Egyptian NGO campaign for the Freedom to Associate

The Egyptian NGO campaign for the Freedom to Associate

A “Draconian” law to strangle civil society

Press release by 41 NGOs

The undersigned non-governmental organizations wish to express their extreme dismay at recent news that the Ministry of Social Solidarity has completed a draft for a new NGO law. According to the latest leaked copy, the bill is more restrictive and draconian than repressive bill already in place. It is expected to pass into law with the approval of the government parliamentary majority in the coming month.

It seems that the haste to pass the bill is attributable to a desire to undermine civil society efforts to monitor the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. Following the abolition of judicial supervision of elections in the last round of constitutional amendments and the government’s refusal to allow international monitors, this step will facilitate further dishonest elections conducted without any meaningful oversight. Some articles of the new bill aim to limit the activities of human rights organizations or shut them down completely by criminalizing all forms of unregistered civic organization.

This criminalization may have ramifications for some of the most important political reform movements (such as the National Association for Change, Kifaya, April 6th Youth and others) including the threat of imprisonment for their leaders and activists.

The bill promises to institute unprecedented control over civil society worse than the crackdown that followed the July 1952 revolution which nationalized political, partisan, syndicate and civic action. It is clear that goal of the bill is to tighten the stranglehold on NGOs and civic organizations.

The authoritarian role of the Ministry of Social Solidarity—and behind it, the Ministry of Interior and various security services—will be strengthened by the bill with the addition of new supervisory bodies: the General Federation of Civic Associations and regional NGO federations. These are semi-governmental bureaucracies invested by the bill with a draconian mandate: to oversee all civic activity by NGOs. The bill preserves the same prohibitions contained in the current law and now requires NGOs to be members in the regional federations and the General Federation. This mirrors the nationalization of the General Federation of Labor in July 1952, which put labor unions under government custodianship for more than a half a century.

Significantly, the President of the state appoints one-third of the members of the General Federation, including its chair. It is customary for the chair to come from the ranks of former ministers or army officers—the current chair is a former prime minister who has already boasted that these changes have been supported by the U.S embassy in Cairo and USAID.

The new bill also gives the Minister of Social Solidarity the authority to appoint one-third of the members of the board of the regional and activity-specific federations. It is worth mentioning that the current law states that all members should be elected.

The bill establishes the General Federation and the regional federations as a false civic front through which various arbitrary interventions can be taken against civic action by the government’s administrative body and behind it the security services.

Those seeking to establish NGOs under this bill must submit their papers to the appropriate regional federation for approval before being referred to the administrative body, which, after consulting with the security apparatus, can refuse to register the NGO.

The bill also preserves the hegemony of the executive authority (through the Ministry of Social Solidarity) over civic activity. Under the bill, the Ministry maintains the legal right to prohibit or withdraw the license from any association, to usurp the prerogatives of the association’s founders, members and its elected boards to establish or change the articles of incorporation, and to determine the administration of its daily affairs and meeting forms.

The law also maintains provisions that give the executive authority over NGOs’ collection of donations or their receipt of foreign funds, and it restricts the right of associations to voluntarily participate in coalitions, federations or networks on the national, regional or international level.

The administrative body has the right to challenge associations’ activities or decisions and to take various punitive measures, including suspending particular activities, dismissing elected boards or suspending and dissolving the association entirely.

The bill prohibits NGOs from working in more than two fields, and human rights advocacy is not one of the two specified fields.

Under the bill, the regional federations, like the administrative body, have the right to intervene in the elections of leadership boards of NGOs and disqualify candidates for membership in these bodies.

The bill contains an additional authoritarian aspect insofar as it allows the government to convene a general assembly in any NGO against the wishes of its members, to determine the structure of general assemblies and the conditions for convening them, and to circumscribe the right of any member of any NGO to withdraw membership. All of these prerogatives constitute an attack on the basic right of NGO founders and members of the general assembly to formulate the internal bylaws that govern relations between the NGO and its members.

The bill strictly bans all NGOs that take legal forms other than associations, such as civil companies, although Egyptian civil law allows such formations; the Minister of Social Solidarity has the right to suspend the activities of NGOs that do not comply. In addition, it is prohibited for the authorities that grant such licenses to issue permits to engage in any kind of civic work, and these permits are considered null from the time that they are issued.

Given this context, the undersigned organizations reiterate that compulsory membership in the General Federation of Civic Associations through the regional federations, as well as the blatant interventions by the legislature in determining the prerogatives and authority of these federations and their leadership boards, constitute a flagrant violation of international standards that guarantee the right of NGOs to voluntarily join or establish federations, networks or coalitions in pursuit of their common interests or goals. NGOs have the basic right to formulate their own articles of incorporation that specify the roles and responsibilities of member parties in these federations or networks.

These interventions are also a flagrant violation of constitutional provisions that uphold the freedom to democratically establish federations. The General Federation of Civic Associations—which is, in fact, a semi-governmental body—is being set up as a cover through which the administrative body—or more precisely, the security apparatus, which has the first and last word in the fate of NGOs—can impose punitive, arbitrary decisions to freeze or suspend any NGO, dismiss its administrative board or take legal measures to dissolve the NGO entirely.

We also note that the bill brings further restrictions and interference on the work of NGOs and civic institutions and limits their activities. Under the bill, local NGOs that work beyond the governorate level must be licensed by a decree from the Minister of Social Solidarity. The bill requires funds of no less than LE100,000 to establish an NGO, whereas the current law sets no minimum; this will most certainly prove an obstacle for dozens of already registered NGOs, which, if the bill passes, will be required to meet these new requirements or suspend their activities.

It is worth mentioning that development and advocacy groups in various areas around the country asked the Speaker of the Parliament and the Minister of Social Solidarity to meet with NGOs that have already drafted an NGOs bill that meets international standards and upholds the freedom to organize, but we received no response.

This even more repressive bill illustrates the emptiness of government claims of democratic reform. It also suggests that the government has no intention of keeping the promises it made to the entire world when it accepted several recommendations in the Universal Periodic Review before the UN Human Rights Council in February. Among these pledges was a vow to protect human rights defenders and amend the NGO law to facilitate civil society activities and the ability of NGOs to act freely.

We, the undersigned organizations, reiterate that we shall continue our campaign to defend the innate right of citizens to organize independently. We shall use all peaceful means possible, including recourse to international instruments, in order to uphold the independence of civic action and confront interventions designed to undermine freedom of action. NGOs have the right to determine their internal policies, priorities and organizational structures, to choose their founders, members and leaders and to manage their own activities and affairs without government or security interference.

Signatory organizations in alphabetical order

Andalus Center for Tolerance and Non-Violence Studies

Arab Council for the Promotion of Fair Trial

Arab Foundation “Adala”

Arab Foundation for Support of Civil Society and Human Rights

Arab Network for Human Rights Information

Arab Organization for Criminological Reform

Arab Program for Human Rights Activists

Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression

Association for Human Rights Assistance of Prisoners

Association for Human Rights Legal Aid

Association of Civil Monitor for Human Rights

Association of Women and Society

Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies

Center for Appropriate Communication Techniques in Development

Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Aid

Center for Trade Union and Workers Services

Citizen Association for Development and Human Rights

Egyptian Association for Participation and Sustainable Development

Egyptian Association for the Promotion of Community Participation

Egyptian Association for the Promotion of Democratic Development

Egyptian Center for Development and Democracy Studies

Egyptian Center for Development and Human Rights

Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights

Egyptian Center for Human Rights

Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights

Egyptian Foundation for the Support of the Family

Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights

Egyptian Organization for Human Rights

El Nadim Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence

Forum for Dialogue on Development and Human Rights

Group for Human Rights Legal Aid

Group for the Promotion of Democracy

Habi Center for Environmental Rights

Hemaya (Protection) Center for the support of Human Rights Defenders

Hisham Mubarak Law Center

Land Center for Human Rights

Ma’akom (With you) Association for Social Assistance

Mosawat (Equality) Association for Human Rights (Port Said)

New Woman Foundation

Sons of the Land Foundation for Human Rights

South Center for Human Rights