(Beirut) – Egypt’s parliament approved a new law governing nongovernment organizations on July 14, 2019 that would maintain many of the existing restrictions on their work, Human Rights Watch said today. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi should not approve the law and instead should return it to parliament for amendments.
Egypt faced intense internal and external pressure to repeal a draconian 2017 law that threatened to crush the independent work of nongovernment organizations, including provisions to imprison their workers for their peaceful work. While lawmakers removed prison penalties from the new law, they have maintained severe restrictions over the groups’ work.
“The restrictions in the new law coupled with Egyptian security agencies’ relentless crackdown on civil society demonstrates the Egyptian government’s intention to suppress independent groups,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “If there’s a shred of good intention to enable civil society to function independently, President al-Sisi should send the law back to parliament to address its fundamental flaws.”
Egypt’s parliament, approved the new law, “The Law on Regulating the Work of Civil Associations,” after only one plenary session to discuss its 107 articles. Parliament then sent it to the State Council, a judicial body that issues non-binding legal reviews of legislation. The State Council sent its review back to parliament in less than a day, and the parliament appears to have sent the bill to the Presidency on July 15. President al-Sisi has 30 days to approve or return it but it is not always clear when the President receives bills from the parliament due to lack of transparency.
The government seems to have finalized the draft law in early April but did not make the draft public, even after sending it to the parliament on June 26, a few days ahead of a scheduled parliamentary recess. Ali Abdel Aal, the Parliament speaker, extended the parliament’s session several times, saying he was personally “under pressure.” He said the law had to be in effect before Egypt’s upcoming Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council, scheduled for November.
The new law prohibits a wide range of activities, such as to “conduct opinion polls and publish or make their results available or conduct field researches or disclose their results” without government approval. The law states that the government must “ensure the integrity and neutrality of the polls and their relevance to the activity of the Association.” The law completely prohibits other activities under vaguely worded terms such as any “political” work or any work that undermines “national security.”
It would also allow the government to dissolve organizations for a wide range of “violations” and would impose fines of up to one million Egyptian pounds (US$60,000) for organizations that operate without a license or send or receive funds without government approval. The law sets fines at up to half a million Egyptian pounds (US$30,000) on organizations that spend their funds in ways the government deems to be “activities other than specified or in violation of laws and regulations” or for refusing to provide any data or information the government requests about the organization’s activities.
The new law will also prohibit cooperation with foreign organizations or experts, impose a strict system of prior approval for foreign organizations to be able to work in the country, and allow for government surveillance and monitoring of organizations’ daily activities.
Al-Sisi’s government has continued to relentlessly prosecute several leading human rights organizations and their staff for their peaceful work under several charges in the protracted prosecutions of the notorious 2011 “foreign funding case” as well as several other cases. In the foreign funding case, the government froze the assets of at least 7 organizations and 10 human rights defenders. The government has also placed 28 of them on travel ban lists for the past several years.
Many organizations were forced to reduce their operations or shut down their offices as a result of the government campaign. The government also shut down over 2,000 organizations, mostly charity groups, under other vague and oppressive laws.
Several UN officials and bodies have criticized Egypt for its crackdown on independent organizations and human rights defenders. The former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said that Egypt was using abusive laws to justify “the systematic silencing of civil society and closure of civic space.” The government has yet to allow the UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association to visit Egypt despite requests in 2011, 2013, and 2017.
Under President al-Sisi, authorities have also introduced other laws that prohibit civic work and public gatherings and punish receiving foreign funding with penalties including a life sentence. Unless the government repeals or amends these laws, work by independent groups could still be punished and prosecuted before criminal courts.
“Whatever public relations hype Egypt will pump out to gloss over the massive flaws of this new law, the reality is that al-Sisi’s security agencies work nonstop to pursue brave human rights and civil society activists as criminals and terrorists,” Page said.
The new law is yet to be published in Egypt’s Official Gazette. Human Rights Watch reviewed what Egyptian newspapers published about the law’s provisions on July 14 and 15 as well as a copy of the draft law posted by The International Center for Not-For-Profit Law (ICNL). The law will give existing organizations one year from the time of issuance of the law’s executive regulations to re-register under the new law.
The government claims that the law would allow organizations to establish themselves simply by giving notice to the authorities rather than obtaining the government’s permission. However, the law would allow the government to ignore any notices that do not include “all data and documents” required. The law also allows the government to reject the notice within 60 days, with a possible appeal before the administrative court.
The law would prohibit the registration of any organization that would undermine vague, broadly-worded terms such as “national security, public order, public morals.” The law does not define these terms. Egyptian authorities have routinely and widely used such terms to criminalize and prosecute activities that fall within granted rights in the Egyptian constitution and international law such as peaceful protests, consensual sexual conduct, and artistic activity.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) holds that “[n]o restrictions may be placed on the exercise of [the right to freedom of association] other than those which are prescribed by law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others” (article 22.2).
Therefore, restrictions on freedom of association need to be “necessary in a democratic society.” The authorities need to justify why each measure is necessary and proportionate, that is, the most severe restrictions on freedom of association, such as dissolving an association, would need the strongest possible justifications. In addition, any limitations cannot destroy or negate the essence of the rights guaranteed in the covenant.
Moreover, no other entities will be allowed to carry out what is defined in the law as “civil society work” which is “any nonprofit work aiming at developing the society.” This would mean that all Egyptian organizations currently registered as law firms will have to register under the new law or face prosecution after one year. The government will have the power to shut down any organization working without a license and to seize its assets.
Severe Restrictions on Funds, Activities
Similar to the 2017 law, the new law would prohibit a wide range of peaceful activities that normally fall within the work of nongovernmental groups. For example, the law would prohibit organizations from conducting any surveys or field research without government approval. The law would prohibit all “political” work, as well as any work that undermines “public order, public morals, national unity or national security.”
The law would also prohibit cooperation with any “foreign entity inside or outside.” Egyptian organizations would not be allowed to hire or consult or cooperate with foreign volunteers or staff members of foreign organizations without ministerial approval.
In recent years, the Egyptian government has sought to criminalize communication with international organizations and has summoned for interrogations victims who allegedly gave accounts of abuses against them to such organizations.
The law imposes heavy fines of between 100,000 to 1,000,000 pounds (US$6,000 to $60,000) for violating many of its terms, such as sending or receiving funds or donations without government approval. The law also provides for seizing all funds received without approval. Similar fines would be imposed for carrying out civil society work without a license.
The law would allow the government, most likely led by security agencies, to inspect all the work of nongovernmental organizations to ensure “that funds are spent for the stated goals.” The relevant minister (usually the social solidarity minister but the executive regulations can give such powers to other ministers too) would have the authority to shut down for a one-year period organizations found by the government to be in breach of regulations regarding receiving and spending funds or carrying out activities not stated when it registered. Similar authority is granted to the relevant minister in many other situations.
A court has to review and decide whether to uphold the minister’s decision within seven days. The minister can also ask the relevant court to dissolve and seize the assets of organizations in such situations.
Courts would also have the authority to dissolve organizations that receive funds or cooperate with foreign organizations without permission. Organizations would face dissolution if they do not carry out “serious work” for one year. The law does not define what “serious work” is.
The law would allow government officials and security agencies to interfere with an organization’s daily work. It states that any organization employee who “obstructs the administrative body” from inspecting or overseeing the organization’s activities would face a fine from 50,000 to 500,000 Egyptian pounds (US$3,000 to 30,000). A similarly disproportionate fine would be imposed for minor administrative issues such as failing to report an address change for the organization within three months. An organization’s director would face the same penalties as the employees if they “knew” about the violations.
The law would establish “The Central Unit for Associations and Civil Work,” under the relevant ministry, which would monitor and oversee the work of nongovernmental organizations. This unit would also be required to establish a mechanism for “instant sharing of information with relevant authorities” when there are “reasons for reasonable suspicion” about terrorism activities.
In recent years, the Egyptian government has increasingly used terrorism accusations and charges against peaceful dissidents and seized the assets of thousands of individuals, businesses, and associations and placed them on terrorism lists without any due process.
Foreign and International Organizations
The law would also impose draconian restrictions on the work of foreign and international organizations. It requires international organizations to obtain a license from the Foreign Ministry, valid for a specific period, before doing any work on Egypt. The license would cost up to 50,000 Egyptian pounds (US$3,000). License applications would have to match “Egyptian society priorities and needs according to the development plans.” International organizations would be required to submit any “reports, data or information” about their activities upon request by the “administrative body.” The law also prohibits international organizations from granting or receiving any funds without ministerial approval.
The law would allow the relevant minister to cancel the license of an international organization without due process under the guise that an organization undermined “public safety, national security or public order” or for violating terms of its license.