Egypt is tightening its chokehold on civil society, Amnesty International warned, as the country's independent NGOs face the risk of being shut down if they fail to comply with a compulsory requirement to register by 2 September.
All non-governmental organizations could face closure and possible prosecution if they do not register by that date under the existing draconian law on associations
"The looming deadline sounds very much like a death sentence for independent Egyptian NGOs. The authorities' ultimatum is not about enabling NGOs to operate and instead paves the way for the closure of those that are critical of the government," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
"The Egyptian authorities must immediately withdraw the requirement for compulsory registration, which is contrary to international human rights standards."
The organization also urged the authorities to drop plans for a new law on NGOs which is set to be even more repressive than the current legislation.
The current law of 84/2002 on associations requires all NGOs to obtain permission from the Ministry of Social Solidarity before registration. This requirement is inconsistent with Egypt's international obligation to respect the right to freedom of association. It also contravenes the Egyptian constitution which guarantees the right of everyone to form associations by mere notification rather than permission.
In practice, the authorities have either ignored applications for registration or rejected them, leaving NGOs in a legal limbo where they could be shut down at any time.
As a result, many NGOs have been operating as law firms or non-profit companies.
The minister of social solidarity, Ghada Waly, told Al Ahram Economy newspaper that the deadline would help oversee organizations that operate illegally in ill-defined fields such as human rights and capacity building.
The Egyptian authorities have an abysmal record of cracking down on freedom of association, particularly targeting human rights organizations.
Their tactics have included raiding NGO offices, shutting them down, blocking their efforts to register and secure funding, interfering in their activities and arresting their staff members.
Since 2011, Egyptian NGOs have worked with successive governments on drawing up an NGO law that would improve on the existing one. However, the current government has put aside all previous drafts and introduced a new text that is set to be even more restrictive.The planned law envisages the creation of an official "Co-ordinating Committee" that would have the right to veto registration, funding and activities of foreign organizations in Egypt, and of any foreign funding of Egyptian organizations, in effect cutting the funding of NGOs.
The committee would include members of the Ministry of Interior and General Intelligence services and would not be obliged to give any justifications for its decisions.
The law would also require NGOs to obtain the government's approval before conducting any field research or surveys. Penalties for violating the new provisions would be harsher, including prison terms of up to three years and a fine of not less than 100,000 EGP (USD 14,000).
Under the draft law, all money held by NGOs will be treated as public funds and subject to inspection by the government. The penalty for misuse or embezzlement of funds can be up to 15 years' imprisonment.
The government says the draft law will be passed after the new parliament has convened.
"There can be no doubt as to the intention of the authorities considering their long history of cracking down on human rights organizations," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
"If Egypt is serious about moving forward, the authorities must scrap this law and provide an environment where human rights are protected and NGOs can operate free of undue interference."
Human rights organizations in Egypt have expressed alarm at the proposed law, and at the requirement to register under the existing one.
"The government is forcing the hand of human rights organizations," said Mohamed Lotfy, the executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms.
He said NGOs now face an unenviable choice - either submit their activities under a repressive law that would stop them from working freely, or to face legal action that may result in closure and imprisonment.
Another representative of a human rights organization, who did not wish to be identified, told Amnesty International: "We are caught between the bad and the worst - namely a deadline meant to shut down any independent NGOs and a draft law that would give security forces free rein to crack down on any independent and dissenting NGOs."
Amnesty International has communicated its concerns over the new draft law in a memorandum sent to the Egyptian authorities on 14 August 2014.