Egypt: Restrictions On Civic Work Underscored

Beirut — Implementing Regulations Stifle Independent Work

The implementing regulations for Egypt's 2019 law regulating nongovernmental organizations issued on January 11, 2021, underscore the law's severe restrictions on the work of independent human rights and other organizations, Human Rights Watch said today. Publication of the regulations highlights the need to rigorously revise the law to meet international standards.

The implementing regulations (bylaws), published in the Official Gazette under Prime Ministerial Decree 104 of 2021, emphasized restrictions in the law such as prohibiting any work of a "political" nature and added new restrictions that largely negate the essence of freedom of association.

"The NGO law's implementing regulations reflect the Egyptian government's determination to shackle its once-vibrant civil society," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "This law, along with the unrelenting persecution of activists, sends the clear message that there is no place in Egypt today for independent civic work."

The government issued the implementing regulations almost 17 months after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in August 2019, approved Law 149 of 2019 on Regulating the Work of Civil Associations. Law 149 removed lengthy prison sentences that had been in the previous 2017 law but kept in place most of the draconian restrictions on the work of independent groups.

President al-Sisi's government has relentlessly cracked down on independent organizations and human rights activists including with arbitrary detentions, unjust prosecutions, travel bans, and asset freezes.

The implementing regulations give organizations until January 2022 to register under Law 149 or risk being dissolved. Law 149 also imposes fines up to one million Egyptian pounds (about US$64,000) for violating its terms, which would bring the work of most independent organizations to a halt.

The implementing regulations require the Social Solidarity Ministry to maintain a database to include details such as all employees, volunteers, and funders, and "any other documents the minister requires" of all nongovernmental organizations in the country, and guarantee "instant exchange" of such information between the ministry and "relevant authorities." This amounts to active surveillance by the ministry and security agencies, which are apparently among the main entities referred to as "relevant authorities," Human Rights Watch said. Associations are required to update such information monthly, including the slightest activity such as new volunteers.

The Social Solidarity Ministry can suspend the work of any organization that violates terms of the law for up to one year, or to ask an administrative court to dissolve the group and seize its assets. The ministry's staff can carry out unannounced inspections of an organization's files and activities.

The government claimed that the 2019 law "removed all obstacles" to establishing an organization, saying that it allows the establishment simply by notifying the government. In fact, registration under Law 149 is convoluted, Human Rights Watch said. It requires an organization to provide an unreasonably lengthy and complex set of documents and reports clearly intended to negate the essence of the right to freedom of association and the ability to work without prior government permission.

The law, for instance, requires existing associations to submit detailed reports about all of its past activities, the geographic areas where it worked, its funding sources, and any contracts or agreements of cooperation with any other organizations, in addition to paying a fee of 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($320) and renting or owning a multi-room office. Failure to submit any document can invalidate its registration, which the authorities can use as a pretext to reject any registration.

New organizations have to follow similar requirements and instantly report new activities as the law requires. In addition, based on reviewing similar decisions in the Official Gazette, it appears that an organization would not be legally registered until the Social Solidarity Ministry issues a decision to that effect in the Official Gazette.

The implementing regulations state that all entities that carry out "civic work" must register under Law 149, including existing law, counseling or consultancy firms, or think tanks, even if their primary activity is not civic work and they are registered under other laws covering corporations or law firms. The government is using this requirement to target leading human rights organizations that have been operating as law firms or think tanks to avoid the restrictions of previous laws governing organizations, Human Rights Watch said.

Foreign organizations face additional restrictions as they must obtain Foreign Ministry approval that is valid only for a certain activity, in a certain geographic area and time, and that has to be renewed every time for each additional activity. Foreign nationals can be members of local organizations only if they have a valid residence permit in Egypt and after government approval.

The implementing regulations state that, outside of an association, individuals cannot carry out any civic initiative, campaign, or work without prior government permission, which requires complex measures including opening a separate bank account for the activity.

Further restrictions as well as government and security agencies' intervention in the activities and funding of organizations spelled out in the law and its implementing regulations undermine the right to freedom of association and make independent work virtually impossible, Human Rights Watch said.

Law 149 prohibits a wide range of activities without prior government approval, such as to "conduct opinion polls and publish or make their results available or conduct field research or disclose their results," to carry out activities in "border areas," to "partner or cooperate" with foreign or local organizations, or open branches outside Egypt. The law also employs vaguely worded terms to completely ban other activities, such as ones that do not "match the goals" of the association, or any "political" activity or work that undermines "national security, public order, public morals." Neither the law nor its implementing regulations provide definitions for any of these terms, which authorities frequently use to ban and punish the peaceful exercise of rights.

The implementing regulations require all associations to report in detail all funding contracts with entities outside Egypt to the Social Solidarity Ministry within 30 days of receiving the funds, and to return the funds if the ministry, after "consulting with relevant authorities," disapproves them within 60 days. Associations need advance government approval to collect individual donations or hold fundraising events.

President al-Sisi's government has relentlessly cracked down on independent organizations and human rights activists including with arbitrary detentions, unjust prosecutions, travel bans, and asset freezes.

In November 2020, National Security Agency officers arrested three leaders of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) for allegedly operating without permission. Under international pressure, the authorities released them in early December but have not dropped the charges including for alleged terrorism-related offenses, and a terrorism court ordered their personal assets frozen.

Their arrests strip away government claims that the Law 149 eliminates prison penalties since the authorities use many abusive provisions of the penal code and other abusive laws to unjustly arrest and prosecute activists. For example, an amendment to the penal code al-Sisi introduced by decree in 2014 punishes receiving foreign funds on broad and vague terms such as "undermining the country's independence" with life in prison.

"This law and these regulations further normalize targeting civil society groups and human rights defenders," Stork said. "Like any authoritarian system consistently fearing people's power, al-Sisi's government treats independent organizations as a threat, not the asset they actually represent."

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