A government minister and member of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has proposed a highly restrictive law that rights activists say would cripple civil society groups in Egypt and mark an alarming shift by the Brotherhood toward the methods of the ousted Hosni Mubarak.
The draft law is likely to be revised before it is sent to Egypt's legislative body for approval. Even so, nongovernmental organization (NGO) leaders and activists say the draft shows that the FJP is adopting the philosophy of former President Mubarak, whose government saw independent groups as a threat and sought to restrict their actions and funding.
Last year, before the FJP's Mohamed Morsi was elected president, the party proposed a law that earned cautious praise from rights organizations. Last week, Mohamed Ali Bishr, a prominent Muslim Brotherhood and FJP member and minister of local development, proposed a new draft that is closer to the highly restrictive bill proposed by another government ministry.
It would interfere in the details of how NGOs operate and organize, and would tightly restrict the foreign funding that rights organizations in Egypt rely on. For the first time in history it would give a legal role to Egypt's security apparatus in overseeing civil society organizations.
If a law much like the current draft passes, “NGOs will not work actively. They will work under the pressure of the law and the government; they will not be healthy NGOs. There's no hope for those that work in human rights or criticize the government on human rights to obtain foreign funding,” says Mohamed Zaree, Egypt program manager at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS).
Mubarak's government saw civil society organizations, particularly those focused on human rights, as a threat. Most rely on funding from abroad, and he sought to restrict or control that funding. When Mubarak was ousted by a popular uprising in 2011, the military stepped in to rule Egypt, but the officials responsible for regulating civil society remained. They launched a crackdown on NGOs that were foreign or received foreign funding, raiding offices, confiscating cash and equipment, and investigating employees.
They eventually brought charges against 43 people, including Americans, accusing them of receiving foreign funds illegally. In public statements leading up to the trial, officials implied those charged had been working to destabilize Egypt. Most of the Americans fled the country last year, but one remained to face the charges.
When the FJP proposed a draft NGO law last year, the military was still ruling Egypt. In at least one article of that draft law, the Brotherhood's party took almost word for word the recommendations made by CIHRS and other rights organizations. Rights activists say the law did have portions they considered problematic, but on the whole it was progressive. They were startled to see the FJP's new draft revert to the vision outlined by the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs, which has advanced the Mubarak-era approach toward NGOs.
Amnesty International said yesterday that the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs recently sent a letter to the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights saying that local organizations are not allowed toengage with “international entities” in any way without the permission of the “security bodies, " apparently on the instructions of the prime minister.
The first draft law “was introduced by the Muslim Brotherhood in different political circumstances,” says Bahey el Din Hassan, head of CIHRS, noting that a military junta was then ruling Egypt. Now, with Morsi as president and the FJP dominating the only legislative body currently active, “they have everything. So why would they make concessions to civil society? This is what changed."
Mr. Zaree says the draft law was presented in a meeting at the Justice Ministry attended by CIHRS as the FJP's proposal. FJP spokesman Mourad Ali would only say that the draft law is still being discussed and is not finalized. He declined to answer further questions, as did other FJP members.
An official statement from President Morsi's office said "the presidency is keen on building consensus on the associations law. No NGOs law has been submitted to the Shura Council [Egypt's legislative body] yet. We have urged the cabinet to withhold submitting a draft law until a more consensual version is in place."
Heba Morayef, Egypt director for Human Rights Watch, says the damage is done when those writing the law start with such a repressive draft, even if they promise revisions. “The problem is that once you adopt language that is very restrictive, even when you attempt to revise it, the revisions tend to be limited,” she says. “The first draft is very significant.”
The FJP draft law calls for foreign funding to be tightly restricted. It requires organizations to receive prior approval from a government minister before they can receive funds, and the minister doesn't have to justify a decision to say no. Already, under the current law, authorities are rejecting or holding up many organization's applications for approval to receive funds from abroad, says Zaree.
Mr. Hassan says the ministerial veto could be used against organizations the government sees as a nuisance – for example, those working to document torture or abuse by security forces.
The most worrying article for many in NGOs is one that designates all NGO funds except member dues as “public funds.” Zaree, Egypt program manager at CIHRS, says it takes the “non” out of “nongovernmental organizations” and “nationalizes” civil society. That designation would give the government greater oversight and allow it greater interference in NGO work – including allowing several government entities the right to review the activities and finances of NGOs at any time, says Zaree.
“This gives you a sense that they look at civil society as a branch of the government. It's not independent,” he says.
Next stop: Jail
Hassan says the law means ministry officials can come to an NGO's offices at any time, review anything they want – related to activities or finances – and refer the employees on the spot to the prosecutor.
The law would also set up a committee to approve the registration of international NGOs. That committee can reject the registration request of any organization if it decides that Egyptian society is not in need of its work – for example, if the committee members decide there is no need for investigating torture or raising political awareness. “It's a very very broad criteria,” says Zaree.
International NGOs that receive foreign government funding, either directly or indirectly, would not be allowed to work in Egypt. That would immediately disqualify many organizations, including the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, both American organizations targeted in the NGO crackdown. They are affiliated with the Republican and Democratic parties in the US, and receive most of their budget from the US State Department, USAID and the US government-funded National Endowment for Democracy (this passage was edited after first posting to correct the IRI and NDI's primary funding sources).
For local NGOs, the law interferes in minor details of how they organize themselves. Those that receive foreign funding would be required to submit a quarterly report on their activities and finances to the government. That puts an unreasonable burden on NGOs, who would spend most of their time writing those reports instead of working, says Zaree. And the law mandates prison sentences, instead of fines, for those who break the law.
Rights advocates say the regulations in the law would effectively prohibit many international NGOs from working in Egypt, and greatly hinder or stop the work of local NGOs as well. Asked if CIHRS could operate under the draft law, if it were implemented, Hassan said, “if it was passed like this, I don't think it would be possible. If we didn't shut down they would come and shut us down.”