(Beirut) – A draft law to regulate nongovernmental organizations would give the government and security agencies veto power over all activities of associations in Egypt and would sound the death knell for the independence these groups have fought to maintain. The government should throw out the current draft and enact new legislation to promote Egyptians’ right to freedom of association as enshrined in the constitution and international law, Human Rights Watch said.
The draft Law on Associations that Egypt’s Ministry of Social Solidarity presented to Egyptian groups on June 26, 2014, would make all activities of associations, including board decisions, subject to government veto. It would empower the government and security agencies to dissolve existing groups, pending a court order, or refuse to license new groups if it decided their activities could “threaten national unity.” It would allow officials to inspect the premises of any association suspected of engaging in the work of a nongovernmental organization. It would impose crippling restrictions on foreign funding of Egyptian nongovernmental groups and their capacity to communicate or cooperate with groups abroad. It would impose sentences of at least one year in prison and a fine of at least EGP100,000 (US$13,985) for infractions.
“This law is not about regulating nongovernmental organizations – it's about throttling them and robbing them of their independence,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “These provisions would extinguish a crucial element of democracy in Egypt.”
The proposed legislation would require international organizations to obtain permission in advance from an Egyptian government committee containing Interior Ministry and intelligence service representatives before carrying out any activity in Egypt. The committee would be able to rescind that permission at any time, for any reason.
“This draft law leaves only the narrowest space for international groups to work in Egypt, and then only according to the whims of the government and security agencies,” Stork said. “It is legitimate for governments, including Egypt’s, to require all associations to operate transparently, but the purpose of that requirement should not be to prohibit the legitimate work of independent organizations.”
Officials from the Social Solidarity Ministry have told Egyptian organizations that the draft law will be introduced in the country’s next parliament, when it is elected. Given the president’s powers to legislate in the absence of a parliament, it is possible the law could be promulgated by decree, as was a deeply restrictive law on assembly.
Authorities over the last year have imposed extensive restrictions on freedom of association. Cairo courts have banned the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition group, and the April 6 Movement, which played a key role during the January 25, 2011 uprising. Security forces, twice in the span of six months, raided the offices of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, an independent rights group.
“Egyptian groups have shown great courage, resilience, and professionalism in the face of intense government pressure and repressive laws,” Stork said. “If this draft becomes law, it would spell the end of the independence these brave groups have fought to maintain.”
In a joint statement, 29 independent Egyptian groups warned that the law would “criminalize the operations of NGOs and subordinate them to the security establishment,” describing the law as “a flagrant breach of the constitution and Egypt’s international obligations” that harkens back to a 1964 law.
In private, rights activists have given even bleaker assessments. “Our time is coming,” one researcher at an independent Egyptian rights group told Human Rights Watch. “There will be a crackdown on NGOs, and we all expect to end up in prison soon. We know this is our fate, and we have accepted it.”
“This draft law would require rights groups to seek permission to continue reporting on abuses from the very entities abusing those rights,” Stork said. “If Egypt's government is serious about human rights, transparency, or democracy – values enshrined in the country's constitution – it will scrap this text and return to real consultations with independent groups on a fresh draft.”
Restrictions on Egyptian Organizations
Under article 4 of the draft Law on Associations, all entities that the government considers to be working as nongovernmental organizations would have to apply for re-registration as associations. Groups that did not do so could face the revocation of their licenses to operate and the seizure of their assets. The government would have the authority to reject the registration of organizations that did register as associations.
Many Egyptian human rights organizations are currently registered as civil companies or law firms rather than associations because law 84 of 2002, which currently governs associations, allows the government to deny a group’s registration on vague grounds, such as that its work might “threaten national unity.” The Ministry of Social Solidarity applied those provisions, for example, in January 2008, when it rejected Egyptians Against Discrimination’s registration as a nonprofit association, and in May 2009, when it denied registration to the group Old Egyptians for Human Rights.
The draft law would prohibit all associations from engaging in “political activities,” a term it defines ambiguously, or undertaking the work of trade unions and associations, threatening organizations that promote labor rights or offer services to workers. It makes it a criminal offense to engage in such activities, punishable by at least one year of imprisonment and a fine of at least EGP100,000 (US$13,985).
Under article 16, Egyptian associations would not be able to join any international association or entity, or assist or cooperate with one, without government approval. Violations could similarly be punished as a criminal offense.
Article 23 would require the associations to report annually to the government, disclosing details of their finances, activities, and internal decision making. The authorities could order a group to halt any activity or revoke any decision, and could take the group to court if it failed to comply within 15 days. Groups could appeal these orders to the Administrative Court, but because the draft law does not specify the grounds on which the government could issue the order, an appeal could draw the group into a protracted, burdensome, and uncertain legal battle with the authorities.
The excessive official scrutiny of internal governance envisaged under articles 24-41 of the draft law amount to government interference, Human Rights Watch said. The proposed text states that each group shall have a “general assembly” consisting of everyone who has been a member for more than three months. The draft law further states that the group’s general assembly may call for a meeting based on an invitation from the board or a quarter of the members of the organization. The draft further allows the government veto power over organizations’ board members. Determining the details of a group’s internal governance structures should be based on the choices of its members, not official diktat, Human Rights Watch said.
Article 18 maintains provisions from existing legislation requiring groups to seek government permission before raising funds domestically through charity events, mailings, or other forms of publicity. In practice, the Egyptian security services’ heavy surveillance of groups working for human rights or to address other “sensitive” topics has discouraged domestic donors from donating to such groups, leaving foreign contributions as a vital lifeline, Egyptian human rights defenders have told Human Rights Watch. Under law 84 of 2002, all such contributions require prior approval from the Ministry of Social Solidarity, under penalty of the group’s dissolution.
In one example of how this provision has been used against independent groups, The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, on April 27, 2009, received a letter threatening to dissolve the group alleging that it had accepted foreign funding without authorization. That threat followed the group’s 2008 annual report, which was critical of the government's human rights record.
Article 17 would further restrict this funding from any source outside Egypt, including from expatriate Egyptians. Foreign contributions would have to be approved by a coordinating committee consisting of representatives of the State Council, a judicial body; the Interior, Foreign Affairs, Justice, International Cooperation, and Social Solidarity Ministries; the Central Bank; and the intelligence service. The draft law does not specify on what grounds the coordinating committee could refuse to approve funding.
Restrictions on International Nongovernmental Organizations
The proposed legislation requires international organizations seeking to undertake any activity in Egypt to seek permission in advance from the same coordinating committee, which could also amend or annul that permission at any time. “In all cases,” the proposed legislation reads, “the organization’s activities must accord with the needs of Egyptian society, pursuant to the priorities of development plans,” as interpreted by the committee. The coordinating committee's permission would also be required before international organizations could move money into or out of Egypt, or before they could work with any governmental body.
The draft law further prohibits any international organization from operating in Egypt if it accepts any government money, “directly or indirectly,” if its activities “infringe on national sovereignty,” or if it seeks to disseminate “the outlooks or policies of a political party.” It further stipulates that “organizations must spend their funds in a way that realizes their purposes and accords with the rules of the activity for which they are licensed in Egypt.” The coordinating committee, in consultation with whichever “experts” it chooses to consult, would determine whether the group complied with these requirements.
In addition to an annual financial report and “any other reports, data, or information required … regarding the organization or any of its activities,” international groups working in Egypt would be required to present a semi-annual “achievement report” on any activity for which it is licensed.
If an international association violates any provisions of the draft law or “the rules for engaging in the licensed activity,” the minister of social solidarity would be able to suspend or annul the permit to engage in that activity by decree, following approval from the coordinating committee. International associations would be able to appeal these decisions to the Administrative Court, potentially leading to a long and uncertain legal battle. In a troubling provision, under the draft law, executive regulations would cover “other cases in which the permits of international organizations are renewed, amended, and annulled, and how to dispose of the funds they leave, regardless of their nature.” Such executive regulations have traditionally introduced more restrictions.
The draft law would give the government and security agencies discretion to halt or limit international groups’ work at will, in violation of non-nationals’ right to freedom of association, which is guaranteed to them on a non-discriminatory basis under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Human Rights Watch said.
Egypt’s Constitutional and International Obligations
Article 75 of Egypt’s constitution, as ratified in a January 2014 referendum, affirms:
All citizens shall have the right to form non-governmental associations and foundations on a democratic basis, which shall acquire legal personality upon notification.
Such associations and foundations shall have the right to practice their activities freely, and administrative agencies may not interfere in their affairs or dissolve them, or dissolve their boards of directors or boards of trustees save by a court judgment.
Egypt is obliged to respect and ensure the right to freedom of association, set out in article 22 of the ICCPR and article 10 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. Egypt may only limit this right through regulations “prescribed by law and that are necessary in a democratic society.” Any limitation should respond to a pressing public need and reflect basic democratic values of pluralism and tolerance. “Necessary” restrictions must also be proportionate – that is, carefully balanced against the specific reason for imposing the restriction and not discriminatory, including on the grounds of national origin, political opinion, or belief. As it stands, the draft law does not meet Egypt’s obligations to protect and ensure freedom of association, Human Rights Watch said.
In February 2010, Egypt had its first Universal Periodic Review before the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Mubarak government at the time accepted four recommendations to reform law 84/2002, including a recommendation to “[r]evise the procedures governing registration of civil society organizations to ensure transparent, non-discriminatory, expeditious, and affordable procedures that conform to international human rights standards.” Egypt will face its second Universal Periodic Review in October.