Human Rights Watch is writing to express its deep dismay at the People's Assembly vote last night to approve the draft Law on Associations and Civil Institutions, an extremely significant piece of legislation that provides the legal framework for monitoring and regulation of the operations of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Egypt.
As explained below, several provisions of the law constitute unnecessary or unreasonable interference with the right to freedom of association guaranteed by Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Egypt has ratified. We respectfully appeal to Your Excellency to use your power under Article 113 of the Constitution and refer this draft law back to the People's Assembly within the next month. We furhter recommend that, with this referral, you publicly encourage parliamentarians to undertake a full and open discussion of the law's controversial provisions, and urge that as part of this process they formally and seriously solicit comment and opinions from a wide range of Egyptian NGOs, civil society experts, and human rights advocates so that the questionable articles of the law will be satisfactorily modified or cancelled.
Our first concern with the law is that it contains overly broad language that can be used arbitrarily to deny legal status to any of the country's existing or emerging NGOs. Article 11 prohibits the establishment of associations whose purposes or activities "threaten national unity" or "violate public order or moral codes." The executive branch of government is granted the power (in Article 6) to deny legal status to any NGO on the basis of the ministry of social affairs' interpretation of this vaguely worded language. While these provisions appear to echo permitted restrictions of the right to freedom of association under international human rights law, in fact they are not the same. "National unity," for example, is a more elastic concept than "national security," which involves a threat to the life of the nation, and in whose interest a state may argue that certain restrictions on freedom of association are justified. Allowing authorities to deny legal status to NGOs in the name of national unity -- a vague term which may easily be wielded against critics of the government or minority groups -- only opens the door to abuse of discretion and arbitrary actions. Article 11 also bans NGOs from "practicing any political or unionist activities restricted to political parties and trade [and professional] unions," and permits the denial of legal status for this reason. This provision has raised concern in Egypt, which we share, because it does not take into account the overlap in some aspects of the work carried out by independent political parties, trade and professional unions, and NGOs. To cite only one example, Article 11 could be invoked to deny legal status to human rights organizations that provide legal aid, an activity which authorities might view as duplicative of the work of bar associations, one type of professional union in Egypt. In such cases, it should be the role of the various organizations of civil society, not the state, to determine such activities are undertaken.
We note with deep concern that Article 75 of the draft law subjects violators of Article 11 to criminal penalities, including a LE10,000 fine and up to one year in prison. In addition, Article 42 states that grounds for dissolution of an NGO include committing "a grave violation of the law, public order or ethics"or "if it is revealed that [an NGO's] real aims included, or it has practiced, activities which are prohibited" in Article 11 of the law. The extremely elastic language gives potentially wide discretion to authorities to harass any NGO with legal action. Moreover, Article 42 permits courts, if so requested, to "order within three days an immediate cessation of the activity while the request to dissolve [the NGO] is being discussed."
The law unreasonably gives to the state the power to interfere with the structure and internal management of independent NGOs. Article 34 requires that the executive branch be notified of the names of the candidates for membership on boards of directors, sixty days prior to board elections. It further stipulates that "the administrative authority and any interested party" can challenge any of these candidates "for not fulfilling conditions for nomination." If the nomination of an objectionable candidate is not withdrawn, the matter must then be referred first to a special non-judicial local committee created pursuant to Article 7 of the law. The committee's decision can be appealed to the local court of first instance. The selection of members of any organization's board of directors should be a matter for the membership to decide in a democratic manner, without interference from the state or other parties.
The law also grants to the executive branch the power to control the ability of NGOs to associate freely with foreign organizations, and seek funding from abroad or send funds abroad. Article 16 states that NGOs must notify the executive branch of intentions to "join, participate in or affiliate with a club, association, institution or organization based outside the Arab Republic of Egypt, whose activities are not incompatible with its purposes." Within a sixty-day period after such notification, the executive branch is empowered to object in writing to any proposed link between an Egyptian NGO and a counterpart abroad. Article 17 prohibits NGOs from receiving funds "from a foreign person or agency," or sending "any funds to persons or organizations abroad" without the permission of the executive branch, with the sole exception of "proceeds from selling books and scientific and technical publications and journals." These provisions cripple the autonomy and independence of NGOs, and represent excessive state interference in organizational decision making and management. If an NGO violates either article, Article 42 of the law authorizes the executive branch to seek the organization's dissolution by court judgment.
Human Rights Watch is also deeply concerned that the law authorizes the imprisonment of Egyptians who might peacefully exercise the right to freedom of association and yet run afoul of the law's restrictive and unreasonable provisions. For example, a minimum of ten persons is required in order to apply for permission to establish an NGO (Article 1). This provision denies smaller groups of activists the right to form organizations and seek legal status. Article 75 of the law prescribes a maximum of six months imprisonment and a fine of LE2,000 for anyone who: establishes an entity that carries out any NGO activities without following the provisions of the law; undertakes NGO activities after a court has ordered the activities to cease or the organization to be dissolved; or in the capacity as a head or members of an NGO receives funding from abroad, sends funds abroad, or undertakes fundraising without the permission of the executive branch of government. The state should encourage and facilitate the growth of independent NGOs in Egypt, and not institute new measures that might criminalize peaceful activity and place local activists behind bars. Last, the law creates new local administrative mechanisms that deny individuals affiliated with NGOs the right to challenge immediately in a court of law any decision of the executive branch that affects the operation or management of their organizations (Article 7). In each jurisdiction of a court of first instance, the law provides for the creation of one or more non-judicial committees, established by the minister of justice and chaired by a judge of the appeal court or higher, which "shall have the competence to adjudicate on disputes that may arise between the [NGO] and the administrative authority." In addition to the judge, each committee will have three other members: a representative nominated by the ministry of social affairs, a representative nominated by the chair of the General Federation of Associations, and a representative of the affected NGO. Article 7 further provides: "Disputes should in the first instance be submitted to the committee before resorting to the competent court, otherwise the lawsuit shall be dismissed. Appeals against the committee's decisions can be lodged with the competent court within sixty days in accordance with the established legal procedure." There are reasons for concern that the structure of this unique addition to Egypt's legal system will allow the committees to be government-controlled, and that this mechanism could be used to entangle NGOs in time-consuming administrative processes prior to direct court review of executive branch decisions.
The new NGO law in Egypt should be a progressive document that will serve as a model for the country and the region. As such, members of parliament should be encouraged to craft legislation that maximizes the ease with which citizens can exercise the right to freedom of association and affords NGOs the space and flexibility to carry out their activities as autonomous and independent actors in civil society, with a minimum of government interference in their affairs.
Once again, Human Rights Watch calls again on Your Excellency not to ratify this law but to send it back to parliament for wider consultation with those who will be most affected by its passage, and to amend or annul its unreasonable and highly restrictive provisions.
Thank you in advance for your attention to this most important matter.
Middle East and North Africa Division
Human Rights Watch