Egypt's NGO Bill facing fierce criticism from rights groups
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi
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Despite recent amendments by Egypt's presidency, rights activists say that proposed legislation regulating the activities of NGOs operating in the country remains dangerously repressive.
"With these amendments, the law is going from bad to worse," Mohamed Zaree, Egypt programme director at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, told Ahram Online.
At a Tuesday press conference convened by the presidency, Pakinam Al-Sharkawy, presidential advisor for political affairs, defended the revised draft.
"The presidency is working towards forging a partnership between the government and Egyptian society with a view to empowering civil society groups, allowing them to work in an atmosphere of freedom, transparency and accountability," she asserted.
Al-Sharkawy went on to stress the presidency's commitment to facilitating the registration process for NGOs while simultaneously ensuring that civil society groups remain subject to Egyptian law.
Tabled last February by the Islamist-led Shura Council's human development committee, the bill has since been subject to several amendments in a bid to allay public concerns over what critics perceive as the draft law's oppressive constraints on civil society.
At least seven different versions have been issued to date, which, say observers, included minor changes that have failed to ameliorate the controversial restrictions stipulated by the law.
The presidency, Al-Sharkawy said, has held extensive discussions with both domestic and international experts in an effort to arrive at a version "that serves the country's interests and meets the demands of all parties concerned."
Rights campaigners, however, have continued to voice fears that the amended law, if passed unchanged, would still give administrative bodies – rather than judicial ones – absolute discretion to decide the fate of civil society groups.
For example, notes Zaree, the latest draft still does not allow civil society groups to operate locally until they obtain a "certificate of registration" from Egypt's social solidarity ministry.
At a Monday press conference, presidential advisors asserted that the final draft of the law was consistent with both Egyptian law and Egypt's new constitution, according to which NGOs can only be legally established by 'notifying' authorities.
Zaree pointed out that the latest amendments had added the provision that NGOs are to be considered legal unless they are rejected by the relevant administrative body (the ministry of social solidarity) within a one-month period – an unwelcome alteration that Zaree says had not been included in earlier drafts.
In addition to fines of up to LE100,000 (roughly $14,200) for a range of violations, board members of civil society groups would also risk – under the new amendments – a ban on membership in any other group for up to ten years, Zaree explained.
According to Article 70 of the latest draft, these violations include receiving or transferring foreign funds without approval from an interagency government committee (steering committee), the allocation of funds for purposes not specified in the NGO's charter, and the establishment of armed militias.
As the legislation currently stands, NGOs are required to obtain permission from the government's monitoring committee for every aspect of their respective projects, funding, and relationships with international associations.
"Any democratic country has red lines limiting activities or funding that might threaten its national security," Al-Sharkawy argued.
Rights campaigners have also voiced anxiety that the law puts civil society groups under the thumb of the state's security apparatus, which will be given a major role in scrutinising NGO projects and funding.
"The amendments simply consolidate administrative and police influence over Egyptian civil society," Gamal Eid, rights lawyer and director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), told Ahram Online.
"Even the impartial international experts consulted by the presidency have harshly condemned the draconian restrictions the bill imposes on civil society and the inherent risks to the country's fledgling democracy," Eid asserted.
The bill has received a cold reception by local and international rights advocates and democracy campaigners, who fear the emergence of "autocratic tendencies" on the part of Egypt's Islamist government to clamp down on freedoms of association.
The UN's top rights official said in early May that the draft law imposes "draconian" constraints on civil society groups and augurs a worse situation than that seen during the rule of ousted strongman Hosni Mubarak.
Navi Pillay, UN high commissioner for human rights, recently urged the Egyptian government to take any steps necessary to ensure that the law did not drift further away from the ideals of Egypt's 2011 popular uprising.
The upper house of Egypt's parliament is currently set to embark on the final discussion and ratification phases of the bill.