Egypt’s parliament approved a new law governing nongovernment organizations on July 14, 2019 that would maintain many of the existing restrictions on their work, Human Rights Watch said. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi should not approve the law and instead should return it to parliament for amendments.
Egypt faced intense internal and external pressure to repeal a draconian 2017 law that threatened to crush the independent work of nongovernment organizations, including provisions to imprison their workers for their peaceful work. While lawmakers removed prison penalties from the new law, they have maintained severe restrictions over the groups’ work.
“The restrictions in the new law coupled with Egyptian security agencies’ relentless crackdown on civil society demonstrates the Egyptian government’s intention to suppress independent groups,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “If there’s a shred of good intention to enable civil society to function independently, President al-Sisi should send the law back to parliament to address its fundamental flaws.”
Egypt’s parliament, approved the new law, “The Law on Regulating the Work of Civil Associations,” after only one plenary session to discuss its 107 articles. Parliament then sent it to the State Council, a judicial body that issues non-binding legal reviews of legislation. The State Council sent its review back to parliament in less than a day, and the parliament appears to have sent the bill to the Presidency on July 15. President al-Sisi has 30 days to approve or return it but it is not always clear when the President receives bills from the parliament due to lack of transparency.
The government seems to have finalized the draft law in early April but did not make the draft public, even after sending it to the parliament on June 26, a few days ahead of a scheduled parliamentary recess. Ali Abdel Aal, the Parliament speaker, extended the parliament’s session several times, saying he was personally “under pressure.” He said the law had to be in effect before Egypt’s upcoming Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council, scheduled for November.
The new law prohibits a wide range of activities, such as to “conduct opinion polls and publish or make their results available or conduct field researches or disclose their results” without government approval. The law states that the government must “ensure the integrity and neutrality of the polls and their relevance to the activity of the Association.” The law completely prohibits other activities under vaguely worded terms such as any “political” work or any work that undermines “national security.”
It would also allow the government to dissolve organizations for a wide range of “violations” and would impose fines of up to one million Egyptian pounds (US$60,000) for organizations that operate without a license or send or receive funds without government approval. The law sets fines at up to half a million Egyptian pounds (US$30,000) on organizations that spend their funds in ways the government deems to be “activities other than specified or in violation of laws and regulations” or for refusing to provide any data or information the government requests about the organization’s activities.
The new law will also prohibit cooperation with foreign organizations or experts, impose a strict system of prior approval for foreign organizations to be able to work in the country, and allow for government surveillance and monitoring of organizations’ daily activities.
Al-Sisi’s government has continued to relentlessly prosecute several leading human rights organizations and their staff for their peaceful work under several charges in the protracted prosecutions of the notorious 2011 “foreign funding case” as well as several other cases. In the foreign funding case, the government froze the assets of at least 7 organizations and 10 human rights defenders. The government has also placed 28 of them on travel ban lists for the past several years.
Many organizations were forced to reduce their operations or shut down their offices as a result of the government campaign. The government also shut down over 2,000 organizations, mostly charity groups, under other vague and oppressive laws.
Several UN officials and bodies have criticized Egypt for its crackdown on independent organizations and human rights defenders. The former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said that Egypt was using abusive laws to justify “the systematic silencing of civil society and closure of civic space.” The government has yet to allow the UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association to visit Egypt despite requests in 2011, 2013, and 2017.
Under President al-Sisi, authorities have also introduced other laws that prohibit civic work and public gatherings and punish receiving foreign funding with penalties including a life sentence. Unless the government repeals or amends these laws, work by independent groups could still be punished and prosecuted before criminal courts.
“Whatever public relations hype Egypt will pump out to gloss over the massive flaws of this new law, the reality is that al-Sisi’s security agencies work nonstop to pursue brave human rights and civil society activists as criminals and terrorists,” Page said.
The new law is yet to be published in Egypt’s Official Gazette. Human Rights Watch reviewed what Egyptian newspapers published about the law’s provisions on July 14 and 15 as well as a copy of the draft law posted by The International Center for Not-For-Profit Law (ICNL). The law will give existing organizations one year from the time of issuance of the law’s executive regulations to re-register under the new law.