New Measures Restrict Work of Civil Society Groups in Egypt

Washington, D.C. – The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) is alarmed by recent efforts by the government of Egypt to obstruct the work of civil society organizations operating domestically. Last week, the Ministry of Social Solidarity published a [ninja-popup ID=9078]notice in Al-Ahram newspaper[/ninja-popup], warning that any non-governmental organization (NGO) not registered within 45 days would face legal repercussions. That news followed the Ministry’s release of a draft NGO law that threatens to undermine the right to freedom of association by subjecting civil society groups to excessive and unwarranted government control. Egyptian groups and the international community have condemned similar restrictions proposed in past years, but their concerns appear to have gone unheeded.

According to the Al-Ahram notice, published on July 18, 2014, organizations not formally registered in accordance with the requirements of Egypt’s 2002 NGO law have 45 days to register their operations accordingly. The announcement led nearly two dozen groups to express their concern that the government of Egypt would soon begin closing a “large number of human rights organizations and [imprisoning] those who work in them….” The groups also noted that many international organizations have already been forced out of Egypt as a result of pressure and harassment by the government, as well as its refusal to approve organization’s registration applications.

The Ministry’s public warning comes just one week after it released a draft NGO law that, if approved, would subject nearly every aspect of an organization’s operations to government control, from its creation and management to its dissolution. For instance, the law would create a government body tasked with approving or rejecting funding for civil society groups and the issuance of permits for international organizations seeking to operate in Egypt. The law would also prohibit the establishment of institutions engaged in “political” activities, as well as activities that “threaten national unity or contravene public order or morals.” Left undefined, these broad categories could be used to target human rights groups and other government oversight groups.

Civil society groups able to overcome the initial hurdles of establishing an organization and securing funding would face further restrictions with respect to the nature of work they would be permitted to perform. They would be required, for instance, to obtain permission from the government before conducting field research—a common tool used by organizations to measure the need for or impact of their work. Additionally, the law would enable the government to annul an association’s resolutions or disqualify its board members, effectively giving the government control of the internal decision-making and leadership functions of non-governmental institutions.

The draft law also codifies the government’s animosity toward foreign non-governmental organizations, making it difficult, if not impossible, for Egyptian civil society groups to work collaboratively with foreign organizations or international bodies. Specifically, the law would require Egyptian groups to obtain permission before cooperating with foreign organizations, associations, or agencies, which could include inter-governmental bodies. Such an interpretation would restrict the ability of civil society groups to engage with and report government abuses to inter-governmental bodies responsible for monitoring Egypt’s compliance with its international human rights obligations.

These restrictions, if enacted, would violate Egypt’s constitutional and international treaty obligations under the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights to protect the right to freedom of association. TIMEP condemns the draft law as currently written and calls for its implementation to be put on hold until a democratically-elected parliament has an opportunity to review the law and amend it to ensure that it that fully comports with Egypt’s legal obligations to protect the right to freedom of association.

UPDATE (September 2, 2014): In response to pressure from civil society organizations, Egypt’s Ministry of Social Solidarity has extended the deadline by which groups are expected to formally register with the government. The new deadline is now November 10, 2014.

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The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness of democratic transitions in the Middle East through analysis, advocacy, and action.