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NGOs wary of undisclosed amendments to civil society law
Published in Daily News Egypt on 11 - 06 - 2009

CAIRO: Thirty-six NGOs expressed concern that they could face more restrictions if government-sponsored amendments to current laws regulating their work are passed before the current parliamentary session draws to a close next week.
The NGOs issued a statement on June 3 that carried both concern and criticism of the expected changes to the law.
The statement addressed "rumors disseminated to the press about new amendments to the law regulating Egyptian NGOs.
The organizations criticized the government's tactics; mainly excluding civil society from discussing the amendments to the law and suggesting changes.
In spite of repeated questions sent to several officials at the Ministry of Social Solidarity over the past week regarding the proposed amendments, Daily News Egypt had not received a response at press time.
Current restrictions
The new amendments are rumored to impose further restrictions upon Egypt's already limited civil society, currently governed by Law 84 of 2002.
Moataz El-Fergiery, executive director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, says that there is no formal government draft for the amendments.
The limitations placed on NGO registration, funding, membership, and general activities under the NGO law have prompted many organizations in Egypt to register as law firms or private companies, while still performing activities related to human and civil rights.
Those organizations working outside of the NGO law enjoy relative freedom as compared to registered NGOs. The new amendments would bring these organizations back under the supervision of the government.
It is believed that the changes would require organizations working outside of the restrictive Law 84 to register with the Ministry of Social Solidarity, resulting in increased supervision by the government.
According to El-Fergiery, "this means civil assassination for these NGOs.
Funding limitations
Deputy Director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights Soha Abdel-Aty speculates that the amendments will impose more restrictions on receiving funding as well as further stipulations regarding membership to an organization.
The law currently prohibits NGOs from obtaining foreign funding without prior government approval. Additionally, the law gives the Ministry of Social Solidarity the right to reject candidates for board membership. NGOs can also be dissolved and their assets liquidated without warning.
The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) is the latest NGO to come under fire. The organization received a letter from the Ministry of Social Solidarity stating that the law requiring government clearance in order to receive international funding had been violated.
According to Tarek Zaghloul, director of the EOHR, the organization submitted all relevant documents regarding their January conference, "Information is a Right for All, held jointly with the Morocco-based Center of Media Freedom in the Middle East and North Africa to the ministry. EOHR did not receive a reply from the Ministry within the stipulated 60 day-period after submission. As a result, they assumed the ministry's lack of response implied approval.
Following the conference, the EOHR was issued a warning by the ministry explaining that they were in violation of the law. Confused, the organization contacted the ministry for clarification. According to Zaghloul, the ministry said an employee's mistake was to blame for the letter and that the EOHR was in fact not at risk of dissolution.
Zaghloul remains suspicious of the ministry's response and speculates that the organization's January conference regarding free speech in conjunction with their 2008 annual report on human rights in Egypt may have sparked government action.
"Over the past four or five years, NGOs have become very active in Egypt in highlighting violations by the government . in the media. Last summer, you couldn't pick up a newspaper without an article on prison abuse, because of NGOs who could do this research, says Abdel-Aty.
Activists believe that this increased activity on behalf of NGOs is what prompted the government to propose new amendments to the 2002 law.
The federation
Other rumors surrounding the proposed amendments relate to the General Federation of NGOs and Foundations. The neutrality and independence of NGOs is drawn into question with the increased role of the Federation.
Ten of the 30-member board are selected by the president of Egypt.
According to El-Fergiery, the amendments are also believed to enable the federation to further interfere in the internal affairs of NGOs.
In 2007, the United Nations' Development Program granted the Egyptian Government $700,000 in order to fund and develop NGOs through this federation.
In its project report, the UNDP lauded the NGO Law for the reforms it would implement, though with some reservation, stating it has "some concerns over some aspects pertaining to the new law.
NGOs surveyed by Daily News Egypt said the federation was not receptive to their requests for participation and reform. In part, the federation was assumed to be a cover for the government - an institution designed to demonstrate free participation and interaction of Egypt's NGOs to the outside world.
Abeer Soliman of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information expressed frustration regarding the lack of dialogue between the government and NGOs.
In response to the lack of dialogue on the proposed amendments, NGOs responded by creating a draft detailing changes more favorable for an independent civil society.
A coalition of 150 NGOs led by EOHR and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies insists that Law 84 must be amended to exclude the possibility of prison sentences, rejection of NGO registration, and remove barriers for receiving foreign funding.
It remains to be seen whether the input of the NGOs will be heard.


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