Contrary to the hopes and expectations of Egyptian and international observers, the year since Egypt’s January 25 Revolution has seen a sustained series of government-orchestrated attacks on civil society.
After several months of “organized smear campaigns designed to impugn [the] patriotism” of Egyptian civil society organizations (CSOs), in December 2011 police raided the offices of several human rights organizations, an action “unprecedented even in the era of Mubarak.” Despite repeated assurances that the raided CSOs would be allowed to resume work, confiscated property has not been returned and their offices remain sealed.
The incursions were followed on January 17, 2012 by an announcement from the Egyptian Ministry of Social Justice and Solidarity that it had completed a draft Law on Associations and Foundations to replace Egypt’s existing Law 84 of 2002. The proposed law is nearly identical to a draft prepared in March 2010 by a committee composed of members of the now-disbanded former ruling party and chaired by ex-Prime Minister Abdelaziz Hegazy.
Finally, on January 26, just one day after the first anniversary of the Revolution, Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces imposed a travel ban on dozens of foreign CSO employees, including the son of US Secretary of Transpiration Ray LaHood. Egyptian government officials have justified the travel bans and raids as part of a legitimate investigation into “illegal foreign funding,” but Egyptian and international CSOs have condemned the “ferocious attack” as an attempt “to deter these bodies from implementing their cultural and human rights defense efforts.”
The draft law announced by the Ministry in January is an unfortunate extension of this trend, and represents a significant degradation in the already restrictive legal and regulatory environment for civil society organizations in Egypt. Among other issues, the draft law:
- Limits the purposes and activities of associations. Associations will only be allowed to work on issues related to “social welfare and development and enlightenment of society” as defined by the Ministry, and will not be allowed to work in more than two is§sue areas without permission from the government. Government officials will have wide latitude to determine whether an association’s purposes are acceptable.
- Mandates registration of all associations and foundations, and imposes criminal penalties on individuals who establish unregistered groups.
- May eliminate the legal basis for many human rights organizations as well as other groups by granting the Ministry the ability dissolve organizations “practicing the activities of associations and foundations” in other legal forms such as for-profit and not-for-profit companies.
- Requires prior approval from the Ministry before an Egyptian organization may affiliate with a foreign organization or accept foreign funds. Organizations that are dependent on foreign funds – especially human rights and opposition groups – may find themselves starved of funds and effectively unable to continue operations.
- Imposes substantial restrictions on foreign associations and foundations operating in Egypt, granting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs an unrestricted right to impose conditions on their activities.
- Raises minimum requirements for establishing associations and foundations, making it more difficult to establish new organizations.
- Increases already severe criminal punishments for violations of the law, creating a strong disincentive to associational activity.
- Allows government officials to easily suspend or dissolve an organization or remove its Board of Directors, severely limiting the independence of Egyptian associations and foundations.
- Requires associations and foundations to obtain licenses before engaging in any form of domestic fundraising, further eroding the long-term sustainability of Egyptian civil society.
- Allows government officials to interfere with the operations of civil society organizations by, among other things, sending representatives to any meeting of the General Assembly of an association and objecting to and removing from internal ballots any candidate for Board of Directors.
- Requires every association and foundation to join a governorate-based “Regional Federation of Associations and Foundations” and provide a representative for the Federation’s General Assembly, mandating that the representatives associate with one another in violation of their rights to freedom of association.
The Ministry has announced a fifteen-day public comment period, after which the draft Law on Associations and Foundations is expected to be taken up by Egypt’s newly elected People’s Assembly as one of its first orders of legislative business. More than 55 Egyptian CSOs have refused to submit comments and are instead calling on the Ministry and the People’s Assembly to replace the draft with one endorsed and authored by Egyptian human rights organizations.