What happens when a nongovernmental organization becomes, in effect, an agency under the governmental thumb?
In Egypt, very few organizations other than militant Islamist groups have risked confrontation with the state in recent years.
Yet on May 25, in defiance of a ban on demonstrations, some 50 protesters marched outside the People's Assembly as it began debate on a law - which would pass in parliament and be signed by President Hosni Mubarak the next day - that gives the government broad new powers to regulate the activities of the country's 14,000 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
Several human rights organizations claim that the law is ill-founded and unconstitutional. In their view, the bill will incapacitate them.
"We will not abide by its provisions in an act of civil defiance," said Gasser Abdel Razek, director of the Center for Human Rights Legal Aid, in anticipation of passage of the law at a press conference May 22 organized by 15 rights groups.
The groups' criticism of the bill was supported in an open meeting two days later organized by representatives from 105 "bread and butter" NGOs active in environment, literacy, charity, and development work all over the country.
The new law gives the government considerable power to intervene in the administrative and financial activities of voluntary associations. It can veto candidates for boards of directors of NGOs and appoint government representatives in their place.
It may dissolve groups that it deems do not accomplish their stated purpose. It requires all NGOs that receive foreign funding - essential to many organizations - to obtain prior approval from the government.
"This law is not about funding, it's about what those organizations are monitoring, what they are reporting on," says Aida Seif al-Dawla, a psychiatrist, member of the Al-Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of the Victims of Violence here, and one of several women who began a hunger strike to protest the bill.
The government's harsh reaction indicates, she says, "a frightening agenda.
"We will see more poverty, more human rights violations, more torture, more unemployment, and more restrictions of public freedoms in Egypt."
That the government should be nervous about the activism of voluntary associations is no surprise. Though the bulk of the movement has been dedicated not to rooting out human rights violations, but to dispensing those social services the government has been seen by some as failing to provide, many NGOs are being drawn into political advocacy in the current climate.
NGOs drive social, political change
The NGO movement, restricted though it may be, has become the only viable channel to bring about social and political change in the country. Its growing activism has become a nuisance to the government, and occasionally an embarrassment.
Many groups have stepped into the political vacuum created in Egypt by the absence of effective political parties, independent trade unions, and a free press. Under emergency laws enacted in the wake of President Anwar Sadat's assassination in 1981, demonstrations and strikes are illegal, and licenses for new political parties or independent publications are virtually impossible to obtain.
Increasingly, while the country is opening up economically to free-trade policies, it has become more repressive politically. Last December, the government arrested Hafez Abu Saada, head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, after the organization publicized the torture of hundreds of Coptic Christians in the Upper Egyptian village of El Kosheh in the course of a murder investigation.
The police officers involved in the investigation received promises two weeks ago of bonuses of 1,000 (Egyptian), about $340, for "good work."
And in early May, after a year marked by the censorship and closure of newspapers and the imprisonment of journalists for libel, Mr. Mubarak earned a place on the top 10 enemies-of-the-press list composed by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, an organization that works to safeguard press freedom around the world.
Violation of the new law can lead to dissolution of an organization and imprisonment of its members. Opponents of the law have vowed to continue the fight against it on several levels.
Prominent members of the committee to draft the NGO law, chaired by Minister of Social Affairs Mervat Talawi, issued a statement Tuesday rejecting the law on the grounds that it includes articles they never saw before.
"A strong faction inside the government," it read in part, "has succeeded in choking the NGO movement."
Five international human rights organizations have weighed in with their criticisms, along with the US State Department spokesman James Rubin.
"This is the wrong direction to go if Egypt wants to energize civil society and promote development," Mr. Rubin said May 28, adding that Washington had made its reservations known to "senior levels of the Egyptian government."
Seeking international help
The NGOs say they will neither dissolve their organizations nor register with the government.
"We're not hoping to rule the country or change the regime. We're hoping to effect reforms that will change policy," said Mr. Abdel Razek.
They have vowed to risk arrest and imprisonment until the law is changed. And they have asked to meet with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson when she visits Cairo this week for an international forum on human rights and development. "The [UN] Human Rights Commission should be working more closely on human rights violations in Egypt," said Abdel Razek at the press conference. "Emergency law has replaced the Constitution of the country."