Egypt’s Parliament preliminarily approved a draft law on the practice of civil work on Sunday, known in the media as the Non-Governmental Organisation (NGOs) Law, and referred it to the cabinet for review.
The law was re-drafted by the ministry of social solidarity upon President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s request, to replace the previous Law No 70 of 2017.
The current law, drafted by the social solidarity committee and passed by parliament in November 2016, has faced sharp criticism from local and foreign circles. Critics have called for a new law to replace the parliament-drafted one, which they described as highly restrictive and undermines the activities of NGOs in Egypt.
The first five chapters of the new law deal with the objective of the new legislation and definitions, the formation of NGOs, the suspension of NGO activities and the dissolution of its boards, the performance of civil society associations, and foreign NGOs.
The second half tackles the roles of the central unit of NGOs and civil work affiliated with the ministry of social solidarity, the funding of NGOs and civil society organisations, the general federation of NGOs, volunteering, and penalties.
The amendments came after Al-Sisi ordered the government in November 2018 to form a committee to come up with a comprehensive vision to amend the existing law. They were also requested to prepare a report with suggested amendments to be presented to parliament after holding community dialogues.
Discussion of the law came during the last week of the parliament’s fourth legislative term that started in October 2018. The new term, and the last, is expected to begin in October 2019.
Parliament speaker, Ali Abdul Aal, said during a plenary session on Sunday morning that the new NGO Law was not drafted by the government as a response to foreign pressure or to some leftist MPs who announced that they will vote “no” to the law upon the grounds that “it is due to foreign pressure.”
“Legislations in Egypt come only out of national interests and never as an echo of foreign voices,” said Abdul Aal.
He added that “when parliament passed its own version of the NGO Law in November 2016, Egypt was facing many challenges, particularly in security, but now Egypt has become a strong state, and never accepts that its legislation is due to foreign pressure.”
Abdul Aal said the new NGO Law meets 99% of the demands of the civil society community.
“Most of all, it eliminates all freedom-restricting penalties and reinforces the role of NGOs in achieving the country’s development plans.”
Head of the Social Solidarity Committee and Head of the Egypt’s Support Coalition, Abdel Hadi Al-Qasabi, considered the draft law of the government to regulate the practice of new civil work as “one of the most important laws that concern the Egyptian society at present.”
“Since 2012, the Egyptian government has tried to issue a law for NGOs that achieves a balance between supporting institutions, and civil society as an active partner in the development process alongside the state and maintaining a non-exploitative status of these institutions and associations as a pretext against the homeland and the country,” he added.
He continued, “there were around 36 drafts as an attempt to come up with this law, and all failed, and the reason for this lack of legislative authority elected at the time, until this parliament was set up and expressed the Egyptian peoples’ aspirations, and was able to address the controversial files that have not been addressed.
He also added, “the current parliament took the initiative and issued Law No 70 of 2017 under international, global, local, and security conditions of the utmost accuracy and importance. Then, the government also comes forward with a new project after the country was able to regain security and was able to face many challenges in sensitive files.”
Al-Qasabi said “the new law significantly differs from the current one (70/2017) as it establishes a central unit with the ministry of social solidarity to be entrusted with supervising NGOs instead of the parliament-affiliated apparatus imposed by the current law.”
He also said that “the new law allows foreigners to increase their contributions to NGOs from 10% to 25%, not to mention that it eliminates all freedom-restricting articles.”
The Minister of Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, Omar Marwan, said that the amendments to the law regulating the practice of civil work does not consolidate the intervention of the administrative body in the affairs of civil associations.
Member of committee of social solidarity, Mohamed Abu Hamed, said the amendments to the law of civil associations came from the Egyptian civil society and that the amendments are purely Egyptian, saying, “I reject one word that these amendments came from abroad.”
He also said that the procedures of amending the law were not in isolation from the parliament and its members, pointing out that when Al-Sisi was asked about the NGOs Law and the observations were sent to him, he responded by directing the government to review the law and re-balance it. That immediately ordered the formation of a government committee from the ministries of social solidarity, justice, and foreign affairs, headed by Ghada Waly.
Meanwhile, Diaa El-Din Dawoud, a member of the leftist 25-30 bloc, said the new law comes to serve “the NGO kiosks” which receive dollars from foreign circles to implement “political agendas” in Egypt.
Member of the House of Representatives, Mostafa Bakri, also said he is against the newly-amended law “because it opens the door wide open for NGOs who send reports to foreign circles to incite against Egypt.”
Moreover, the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy released a report on the NGOs Law, with several comments including that, “the draft law conceives a narrow purpose for domestic and foreign NGOs. Multiple provisions in the law refer societal development as the purpose of NGO work, marginalising organisations that do not fit into the traditional development definition.”
It also noted that “domestic and foreign NGOs are prohibited from pursuing activities that breach a number of vaguely worded terms like “national security,” “public order,” and “public morals.” Other provisions prohibit NGOs from entering into agreements with foreign entities, conducting opinion polls and surveys, relying on foreign persons as experts, employees, or volunteers, and participating in workshops abroad without prior approval.”
On the other hand, the report highlighted that the new draft law contains two improvements as “It cancels jail sanctions and does away with the security-heavy agency previously designated to approve and monitor foreign funding. However, the law furthers problematic restrictions on the right to freedom of association. It conceives of a narrow role for civil society, relegating it to the field of development; it significantly constrains the activities of both domestic and foreign NGOs, particularly under the pretence of national security; and it empowers authorities with expansive monitoring authority and broad discretion to regulate and dissolve NGOs.”
What to know about the new law?
The new law will not allow any founding members of the organisation to be any of those who have been included in the lists of terrorism, and will allow for non-Egyptians who have permanent or temporary legal residence in Egypt to participate in the membership of the association or its board of not more than 25%, and will allow foreign communities to establish their own associations as well.
It also includes that the administrative authority may authorise, to natural or legal persons of Egypt or both, to launch or implement an initiative or a campaign to carry out a certain activity of the civil work authorised for the associations to implement in accordance with the provisions of this law.
This is provided that the period of implementing this initiative or campaign is not more than year and could be renewed. The executive regulations of this law shall specify the documents to be submitted to the administrative body for obtaining the permit and the rules to be followed for carrying out this activity.
The cabinet also approved the amendment of Article 34 of the Law, after adding further guarantees that the profits of investment funds and companies established by NGOs would go to charity.
The ban on the participation of NGOs in any stock market speculation, with the obligation to spend money in their intended purposes. It has to invest surplus revenues so as to ensure their access to adequate financial resource, or re-employed in its projects and service, to support its activities as determined by the executive regulations.
Also, associations may retain what they receive from foreign currency into their own account if the initiative requires it, in accordance to the provisions of this law and the rules issued by the Central Bank of Egypt.