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Governing the non-governmental
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 30 - 05 - 2002

The Shura Council approved a draft for the NGO law, but the controversy continues. Mariz Tadros gauges the reactions
Amina El-Guindi
The Shura Council approved, on Saturday, the draft of a new law regulating the the activities of non-governmental organisations. The consultative upper house of parliament approved the draft law in the second of two stormy sessions to debate the proposed bill.
The draft was presented as an alternative to Law 153 of 1999, which the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled unconstitutional only a few months after it was passed by parliament.
According to Minister of Social Affairs Amina El-Guindi, the bill is based on Law 153 but includes some additional articles aimed at enhancing NGOs' capacity to work effectively. Consequently, El-Guindi said, the law is quite flexible and it increases the scope of NGOs' freedom.
El-Guindi also highlighted the many ways in which the Ministry of Social Affairs supports NGOs that include providing them with human and financial resources. She announced that the ministry annually allocates LE65 million to some 5,000 associations.
El-Guindi maintained that a special committee was formed for the drafting of the law, and that meetings were held with NGO representatives before the bill was reviewed by the cabinet.
However, Amal Abdel-Hadi from the New Woman Research Centre, who attended one of the two meetings held by the ministry, protested that none of the suggestions made during the discussions were reflected in the draft that was presented to the Shura Council. Abdel-Hadi believes that the process for the formulation of the new bill is no different from that which preceded the enactment of defunct Law 153. She recounted that with Law 153, sessions were also held before the law went to the People's Assembly, but none of the recommendations were taken seriously. This time round, "one had the impression that this was just a measure that was a sort of 'window dressing' to say that NGOs were consulted," she complained. Abdel-Hadi conceded that while the minister expressed interest in consulting NGOs and emphasised that the door for dialogue is always open, their requests for more sessions to discuss the law and that more NGOs attend the forums, were not met.
Some of the reservations voiced by NGOs during the two sessions included the right to participate in NGO networks with prior notification rather than permission from the ministry, the establishment of NGOs by official notification rather than permission and removal of some of the articles that criminalise certain actions and stipulate harsh penalties for them.
Discussions at the Shura Council revolved around the question of foreign funding, the liquidation of associations and the nature of activities NGOs are permitted to engage in.
Foreign funding was a particularly contentious issue. The proposed law takes a tougher stand than the previous law. Any funding from a foreign body/institution, whether it is based in or outside the country, is forbidden unless prior permission is obtained from the Ministry of Social Affairs. Law 153 allowed funding from foreign institutions operating within the country, since they all have agreements with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Some Shura Council members fiercely attacked the very principle of allowing NGOs to receive foreign funding. The main arguments against such funding were that foreign organisations propagate destructive ideas and aim to intervene in Egypt's domestic affairs.
The prohibition against NGOs' engagement in activities of "a political nature" was another of the sticky issues raised in the discussions. Article 11 of the proposed law prohibits NGOs from engaging in any activities undertaken by political parties and trade unions. One MP asked whether raising funds for the Palestinian cause would therefore be considered political under the new law. Kamal El-Shazli, minister for parliamentary and Shura Council affairs, replied in the negative, also saying that the entire Egyptian population is behind Palestine. He went on, however, to attack "associations which work to promote democracy" in Egypt, claiming that this was not "their job".
Two amendments were introduced to the draft law by the Shura Council. The first amendment concerned the arbitration committee, which is charged with mediating disputes between the NGOs and the ministry of social affairs before the matter is referred to the competent court. Farkhonda Hassan, member of the Shura Council and the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), objected to the composition of the arbitration committee. The draft stipulates that the committee must comprise three of four parties: a judge, NGO federation representative, ministry official and NGO representative. "It is easy for them [the mediation committee] to say 'we had notified the NGO and it did not come', and the three parties go ahead and vote in its disfavour." The article was amended so that one of the three committee members must be an NGO representative.
The second amendment to the draft law was, unlike the first, not in the NGOs' favour. Article 42 of the draft law empowers the Ministry of Social Affairs to liquidate an NGO, seize its property, confiscate its papers and freeze its assets if it violates certain conditions. These conditions include allocating resources for a purpose other than that covered by the organisation's mandate, if it joins any institution or association outside of Egypt without prior permission from the authorities, accepts foreign funding without prior permission, if it violates any aspect of the law and if its general assembly is not held for two consecutive years. The amendment to the law made at the Shura Council gave the right to any ministry to liquidate any NGO which operates in its field.
Amani Qandil, general manager of the Arab NGO Network, a non-profit organisation working in development, described the law in an article in the daily Al-Ahram as "advancing backwards". She described article 42 as allowing the government to act in an "arbitrary" manner.
There was a general consensus, argued Qandil, which was also reflected in Law 153, that the liquidation of an association is the prerogative of the competent court. The article, she added, contravenes all international codes which prohibit an administrative body from liquidating an NGO. It also puts Egypt behind other Arab countries in the development of state-civil society relations and the provision of fair arbitration between them, she argued citing the cases of Jordan and Tunisia.
Hafez Abu Se'da, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) also protested that the proposed new law is more restrictive than the previous one. In a statement issued by the EOHR, it criticised the law for granting the Ministry of Social Affairs extensive powers over civil associations in Egypt.
The Paris-based Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights released a statement expressing concern for some of the provisions which it stipulates are "a flagrant violation of international human rights agreements ratified by Egypt, in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders". The observatory called for a revision of the draft law to conform with the international human rights treaties signed by Egypt.
Abu Se'da said he was under no illusions about the bill. "There were no signs that there is any change in the direction of the government's policy vis-à-vis the civil society sector," he said. Other NGO activists were hopeful that the ministry would revise some of the unconstitutional articles in Law 153, however, there is a misunderstanding about the basis upon which the Supreme Constitutional Court rejected the law.
Official understanding of the Supreme Constitutional Court's ruling is that the law was rejected because it did not pass through the Shura Council, not because its actual articles violated the constitution.
The EOHR statement also called upon "all Egyptian NGOs to cooperate to confront the legal restrictions included in the bill for civil society NGOs and to put a long-term strategy to defend NGOs' freedom to work in Egypt".


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