Access Now issues a red card to Egypt for new repressive NGO law

All eyes are on Egypt for the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) finals this week in Cairo. Football in the country is highly politicized — high ticket prices and a complex online ticketing system left few spectators in the stands. Highly organized fan groups also represent prominent dissenting forces against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime. 

Beyond the fanfare and celebration of football, the House of Representatives in Egypt debated and passed an “amended” nongovernmental organizations (NGO) law governing the activities of independent civil society organizations in the country. The president has 30 days to reject it, otherwise it comes into effect as law. Due to the vague and broad language used in the new NGO law, it is unclear if the provision on the “Qualitative Union” (a union that has a legal entity and established by at least 15 associations or civil society organizations or both) would affect the ability of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to host the continent’s largest football tournament in Egypt. The CAF represents the national football associations of Africa and controls the competitions, regulations, and media rights of the competition. 

We at Access Now support the position of the 10 Egyptian rights groups and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) in rejecting the new NGO law that was passed last week in the Egyptian parliament. CIHRS and other civil society organizations have rejected the new law as a rebranding of the former repressive NGO law passed in 2017. CIHRS describes the changes in the new law as deceptive and superficial

An overview on the 2017 NGO law in Egypt: 

The services provided by NGOs and human rights organizations are critical and often lifesaving. The former NGO law (law 70) severely restricted the work of civil society organizations. It targeted human rights defenders and NGO workers with threats of closure, prison sentences up to five years, and heavy fines up to 1,000,000 Egyptian pounds (US $55,000) for any work, research, or publication found to harm “national security, national unity, public order or public morals.” 

Human rights abuses and efforts to silence dissent

According to Human Rights Watch, under President al-Sisi prosecutors interpreted a wide range of activities protected under the Egyptian constitution and international law as threats to national security and have filed charges against people solely for belonging to opposition movements. Cases of human rights abuses and government efforts to silence dissent are well documented in Egypt — tens of thousands of people have been unjustly detained, including journalists and activists. Amnesty International documented the range of threats the government has used against activists and human rights defenders in Egypt including harassment, arbitrary travel bans, asset freezes, and arrests. 

At Access Now we share the deep concern and outrage over these measures to muzzle freedom of expression, association, and assembly in efforts to dismantle the human rights movement in Egypt and crush any signs of dissent.

The 2017 law introduced a state regulatory committee – the National Authority for the Regulation of Non-Governmental Foreign Organizations. Part of the committee’s mandate was to monitor any NGO that received foreign funding and required notification of local funding, justified by Egyptian officials as necessary to keep foreign-funded charities from interfering in state security.

One of the many examples where this type of restriction was enforced was in 2013, when 43 Egyptian and foreign NGO workers were convicted to prison for “allegedly operating in the country without proper licenses and for other charges related to receiving foreign funding.” The organizations were shut down and made to leave Egypt, as under the Penal Code they faced charges that carry a life sentence. Last year, in 2018, Egypt finally acquitted the 43 NGO workers “previously sentenced to prison simply for doing their jobs.”  

The 2019 NGO law: re-branded repression 

While Egypt officials have declared the new law amends the NGO law for the better, rights groups have rejected the changes as insufficient, arguing the new law is “rebranded repression” and still based on a hostile attitude toward civil society groups. Minor changes, as reported by Reuters, include removing jail time from the penalties of the law and reducing fines to between 200,000 and 1 million Egyptian pounds (US $12,070 – $60, 350).While the threat of prison sentences for NGO staff members has been removed, Amnesty International explains the new law makes reference to other legislative tools that can and have been used to prosecute and imprison human rights defenders on the basis of vague and overly broad charges. To completely eliminate custodial sentences, CIHRS contends the Penal Code and the counterterrorism and terrorist entities laws – which are used to criminalize the work of NGOs and human rights defenders – must also be amended. The law still gives authorities powers to dissolve independent human rights groups and criminalizes legitimate activities of NGOs.

“The draft law will do little to end the climate of fear, repression and persecution faced by human rights defenders in Egypt,” said Najla Bounaim, North Africa Campaigns Director, Amnesty International.

The 2019 law allows NGOs to receive money from Egypt or abroad as long as it is deposited in a bank account within 30 days and gives the government 60 days to challenge the transfers, effectively allowing the state to shut down organizations by denying funding. The new law still restricts NGOs’ work by requiring government approval for NGOs to be established, limiting NGOs’ ability to determine their purpose and area of work, restricting publications of research findings without governmental permission, and granting authorities powers to shut down NGOs and subject staff to criminal prosecution based on vague and broad charges such as “disturbing public order” and “harming national security.” The new law still prohibits foreign organizations from using their headquarters for “unauthorised activities” without specifics. See the CIHRS letter and the public statement released by Amnesty International for a detailed breakdown of the concerns with the new law and the repressive elements that remain. 

Call to action

We share CIHRS’ concerns that the law cannot simply be revised and want to amplify their call for international condemnation. The current draft law was not created with genuine consultation with independent human rights organizations. We urge all concerned parties to add your voice to the CIHRS letter, show solidarity in rejecting the law, and increase the pressure for further reforms, especially by advocating for the NGO bill drafted under former Minister of Social Solidarity Ahmed al-Borai – a bill that was formulated on the foundation of extensive consultation, dialogue, and input from civil society organizations and ministries.