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July 30, 2014

Growing Restrictions on Egyptian Civil Society as Parliamentary Elections Loom Closer

By Jannat Majeed

As the first parliamentary elections since Egyptian President Sisi was elected loom closer, the Egyptian government has put various restrictions on civil society in place.  Most recently, the Ministry of Social Solidarity (MoSS) published an announcement in the Al-Ahram newspaper on July 23, 2014, requiring all civil society “entities” to register as NGOs within 45 days in order “to avoid questioning/accountability issues in accordance with relevant laws in force,” a statement that Egyptian NGOs consider “a declaration of war by the government on freedom of association and the work of civil society organizations in Egypt.” 

This announcement supplements the MoSS proposal in June 2014 of a restrictive draft law on associations that would regulate the operation of civil society organizations in Egypt.  The draft law is the latest in a series targeting NGOs since the removal of Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011 and is the most restrictive one on the table so far.  The law would require all organizations doing civic work to be registered, with MoSS having the ability to deny the registration if it deems the organization to be taking part in prohibited activities, such as those that “violate public order or morals.”  Because this language is so vague, there is a real danger that it could prohibit a vast range of NGO activities.  The law would also create a government coordinating committee composed of officials from the Ministries of Interior, Justice, and Homeland Security, among others.  This committee would oversee the restrictive regulation of foreign funding for local NGOs. 

The law would prescribe limits generally on the funding, either foreign or local, that NGOs would receive.   For example, the coordinating committee would have to give prior approval before an organization could receive foreign funding.  Regarding local funding, organizations must get a permit before collecting donations.  It would also allow MoSS to dissolve NGOs for a wide range of reasons, including if the organization fails “to achieve the purposes for which it was established.”  Overall, this draft law makes the work of Egyptian civil society substantially more difficult and allows the government, including the security sector, to limit the growth of a healthy civil society in Egypt. 

The 45-day registration deadline by MoSS and the draft NGO law both operate within a wider context of ongoing assaults on Egyptian civil society.  Other restrictions on civil society in Egypt include a protest law that was issued by decree late last year, which subjects demonstrations to prior government approval, giving the Interior Ministry the ability to ban protests on such grounds as the protests “influencing the course of justice.”  In late June 2014, 23 Egyptian human rights defenders were arrested and detained during a protest opposing the law.  Most of them remain in prison.

Such restrictions on civil society are significant as parliamentary elections have been scheduled to take place before the end of the year.  In order for elected officials to truly represent the will of the people, civil society should be allowed to play an active part in informing the public about issues and letting Egyptians freely express their wishes.  Restrictions on civil society, especially at such a critical time, are evidence of reluctance by the Egyptian government to bring about the changes that the public protested for in 2011.  For its part, the U.S. government should use whatever influence it has to persuade the Egyptian government to revoke the draft NGO law and the 45-day registration deadline.