The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law
Volume 1, Issue 4, June 1999
A meeting will be held in Amman, Jordan to discuss legal developments affecting NGOs in the region. It is expected to take place in late June and to be sponsored by the Friedrich Neumann Stiftung and the World Bank. For further information about this meeting, please contact Shaha Riza at the World Bank, email@example.com.
In late May the Egyptian Parliament adopted new legislation affecting NGOs. The new law, Law No. 153 of 1999, replaces the old Law No. 32 of 1964. Despite its origins in a collaborative drafting process headed by the Minister of Social Affairs, the law that eventually passed the People’s Assembly was met with widespread criticism both inside and outside Egypt. Prominent NGO leaders in Egypt, who had been associated with the drafting process, disavowed the law as passed. Many newspapers, including the New York Times, editorialized against it. And human rights organizations, within and outside Egypt, raised strenuous objections to it both before and after its passage.
What has provoked such a high degree of outrage is the degree to which Law 153 permits government interference with the activities of NGOs. In addition, the law as passed differs from the draft that had been accepted by civil society leaders as an outcome of the collaborative process. Although that draft was not viewed as being entirely without flaws, many observers had praised it, as well as the process by which it evolved. Finally, some have noted good aspects to Law 153 – for one thing, certain issues have been clarified (not to everyone’s liking, to be sure), and that additional clarity can be seen as a plus. But given the other objections to the law, that is easily forgotten by most observers.
Some problematic provisions of the new law. In lieu of a lengthy analysis of the new legislation, we are using this space to briefly list some of the problem areas that have been identified.
1. Registration issues. Under the draft law, there would have been major improvements over Law 32. Registration would have been accomplished by notification, with the government needing to take the extra step of going to court to prevent registration of an organization which it deemed to be inappropriate for any reason. This was changed in the final version of Law 153 to a situation in which the burden of going to court to challenge a refusal to register is placed on the organization.
The law sets out reasons for refusal of registration that are extremely vague. For example, organizations are forbidden to “threaten national unity and violate public order,” terms which could easily be construed to include organizations that encourage recognition of minority rights. The amount of administrative discretion allowed by such language contravenes the good practices for NGO legislation described in the World Bank’s Handbook on Good Practices for Laws Relating to Nongovernmental Organizations (Discussion Draft, 1997). ICNL objected to similar language in Law 32 when it was asked to provide comments on that law and its acceptability under the international standards.
In addition, there is a new dispute resolution mechanism (an “arbitration board”) introduced by Law 153 to hear NGO complaints regarding failed registrations. While this might prove to be a workable solution that will prevent organizations from needing to file court papers, many see it as a new bottleneck. They believe it will add to the filing burdens for organizations, such as religious and human rights organizations, that the government does not like.
2. Political activity restrictions. In a significant change from the draft, Law 153 does not permit NGOs to engage in “political or syndicalistic (trade union) activity, the practice of which is confined to political parties and syndicates (trade unions).” While this language may be narrowly construed to mean only those political or union activities that are peculiar to such organizations, it could easily be interpreted more broadly. Under good practices as outlined in the World Bank Handbook, NGOs should be permitted to engage in a wide variety of political activities, including advocacy for particular causes. It would be better to return to the more narrowly drafted language of the draft, which would have forbidden NGOs to engage in political party activities in violation of the political party law.
3. Foreign funding and foreign linkages. Like Law 32, Law 153 requires permission for NGOs to receive foreign funding and to develop linkages with foreign organizations. ICNL has previously expressed the view that such restrictions contravene good practice, particularly because they can be applied arbitrarily. Nonetheless, this is an area of extreme sensitivity in such places as Egypt, and the restrictions seem to have their origin in that sensitivity. Although the draft required that the Ministry of Civil Affairs be notified if an organization were to receive foreign funding or develop foreign linkages, that did not seem to have satisfied the security concerns. The government should consider a less intrusive means to deal with its concerns. At a minimum, the penalties for failure to comply with the requirement for obtaining permission (a possible sentence of one month in prison and a fine of up to LE 1,000) should be reduced.
4. Conversion of civil companies to associations. One interesting aspect of Law 153 is that it closes an opportunity for registration that had been used by many NGOs with difficulties registering under Law 32. These organizations had been set up as “civil companies” under the Civil Code, Article 505. Law 153 forecloses that option, requiring organizations with purposes described in Law 153 to register under Law 153. Those already set up as civil companies are required within six months. Whether this is consistent with the Civil Code remains to be seen. Exactly why an organization that seeks to carry out charitable purposes must be organized as an association and not as a for-profit entity is not clear. In addition, this requirement is said by many human rights activists to violate the freedom of association set down in the Egyptian Constitution. These issues will almost surely need to be litigated in order to be resolved.
Implementation of the new law. One hopeful sign is that seven organizations in Egypt recently visited the Ministry of Social Affairs and were “provisionally” registered under law 153. They included the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, whose registration under Law 32 had been in limbo for many years, and other activist organizations. But whether they will be finally registered remains to be seen. This situation needs to be closely monitored because it may give some indication of how one can be expect the new legislation to be implemented.
Possible amendments? The new Egyptian legislation is important not just for Egypt but also because it appears to be looked to as model in other countries in the region (there are unsubstantiated rumors that the drafting processes in both West Bank/Gaza and Jordan are being influenced by the new legislation in Egypt). The fact that Law 153 falls short of the good practices discussed in the World Bank Handbook suggests that serious consideration should be given to seeking amendments before the implementing regulations are written. Some possible amendments are suggested in this short report; others can be developed through a more detailed analysis of Law 153 in light of the principles set out in the Handbook.