(Beirut) – The Egyptian government should abolish the April 11, 2023 registration deadline for the country’s draconian 2019 associations law until the law is amended to ensure that nongovernmental organizations can operate freely without intrusive government interference or harassment, Human Rights Watch said today.
The 2019 law allows the authorities to shut down and freeze the assets of any group that continues to operate without registration. The authorities should urgently amend the law so that it complies with rights guaranteed by Egypt’s Constitution as well as its international human rights obligations. Groups registered as law firms or other legal entities should not be compelled to register under the 2019 law.
“The authorities are forcing organizations to choose between operating under conditions that make independent work impossible or outright closure,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Constraining and silencing independent groups removes space for critical debate and hampers efforts to ensure government accountability, all to Egypt’s detriment.”
The authorities should also halt the longstanding crackdown on independent groups and put an end to abusive tactics including harassment by security agencies and politicized prosecutions intended to curtain civic space and human rights activism.
Egypt’s international partners, including the United States, European Union countries, institutions and member states of the African Union, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank should press the Egyptian government to meaningfully amend and improve the 2019 associations law and end the attack on civic space.
The 2019 law does not permit any kind of “civic work,” defined as “any nonprofit work aiming at developing the society,” without registration. The unduly complicated and burdensome registration process is not final until the Social Solidarity Ministry publishes its approval and the groups internal regulations on the ministry’s website.
The requirement to register applies to all new or existing Egyptian or foreign organizations that carry out civic work even if they are already registered under previous laws concerning nongovernmental groups or other laws. The broad definition of civic work in the 2019 law is meant to prohibit any independent civic engagement or activity without government permission and supervision. Over the past two decades, many organizations were registered as law firms, research organizations, and consultancy companies to avoid the highly restrictive laws governing organizations. Under the 2019 law, these alternative registration options are no longer possible.
The law requires all authorities, including security agencies, to identify and to report any unregistered group. This, in effect, ensures security sector control over all civic space in Egypt. Staff members can face prosecution and hefty fines, and even prison, if they are prosecuted under additional abusive laws restricting freedom of association.
Even if a group manages to register, the law places severe restrictions on its activities, annulling groups’ independence and making them auxiliary to official entities. The law requires prior government approval for surveys or field research. And it prohibits cooperation with any “foreign entity inside or outside” the country, sending money to individuals or entities abroad, or opening branches or offices outside Egypt without Social Solidarity Ministry approval.
Some activities are completely banned, such as “political” work, though the law and its implementing regulations do not define what that means. It prohibits work that allegedly undermines vague, broadly worded terms such as “national security,” “public order,” or “public morals.” Neither the law nor its regulations define these terms, which Egyptian authorities have routinely used to criminalize activities that fall within protected rights in the Egyptian Constitution and international human rights law, such as peaceful protests, consensual sexual conduct, and artistic activity.
As of October 2022, only 32,000 out of 52,500 nongovernmental groups operating in the country had managed to register, the Social Solidarity Ministry said.
Since 2014, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government has severely curtailed the civic space and attacked human rights defenders and independent activists through unjustified arrests, prolonged pretrial detention, prosecutions, travel bans, asset freezes, and additions to the “terrorist list” after arbitrary and flawed judicial proceedings. The authorities have used a web of draconian laws that effectively eliminate basic freedoms.
Under Case 173 of 2011, known as the foreign funding case, and based on security allegations that negate the essence of freedom of association, dozens of leading Egyptian organizations and human rights defenders continue to face prosecution for receiving foreign funds. An investigative judge has dropped the charges against a handful of activists and they were able to travel abroad in recent months, but their assets remain frozen.
Many groups have been forced to operate from outside Egypt and their staff members have sought asylum or are living in exile. On January 10, 2022, the Arab Network for Human Rights Information announced that it was ending its operations after nearly 18 years. The group said it was unwilling to comply with the severe restrictions in the law, apparently after it received an informal message that working on freedom of expression and prison conditions is forbidden.
Egypt’s crackdown on civil society extends to charities as well. In recent years the authorities have dissolved over 2,000 charity organizations and confiscated their assets on charges that they have links to the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
On July 24, 2022, Talaat Abdel-Qawi, a parliament member who heads the General Union of Civic Organizations and Foundations, a pro-government union of associations, said that the union and the parliament were working together to introduce new “serious” amendments to the 2019 law, supposedly to allow more “flexibility” for independent organizations. There have been no proposals from the parliament since then.
“The Egyptian authorities may exploit the April deadline to justify yet another wave of abusive prosecutions and harassment targeting independent organizations and activists who refuse to see their groups chained by draconian laws that contradict the constitution and basic rights,” Coogle said.