Egypt does not yet have an elected parliament, but that has not held back interim legislators from keeping busy, drafting laws that are taking the country’s repression to new heights.
The latest fruit of their work has recently surfaced: a new draft law that fiercely curbs the freedoms of civil society and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) while scrutinizing their every move.
In response, twenty-nine Egyptian rights and advocacy groups—the ones most likely to bear the brunt of the law’s repercussions—have issued a public statement denouncing the proposed law, calling for the president and incoming parliament to reject it.
The draft Law on Associations is quite a slap in the face to these groups, considering that the Ministry of Social Solidarity—the body responsible for the draft law—invited members of these very groups last summer to play a role in advising and crafting the bill. As it turns out, their seats at the table were merely to serve PR purposes.
In their statement, the groups say the critical discussions and conclusions arrived at during their meetings with the ministry last July were simply scrapped. Instead, the ministry inserted a comprehensive list of restrictive measures into the latest version of the bill, modeling a retrogressive 1964 Nasser-era law on nongovernmental organizations.
While even the consensus language proposed during the meeting was admittedly not the most ideal or liberating for nongovernmental agencies, it nonetheless abided by Egypt’s constitutional framework and international treaties—something the current draft clearly contradicts.
Weakening NGOs by Ignoring the Constitution
The draft law’s disregard for these constitutional and international obligations is striking. Whereas Article 75 of Egypt’s newly adopted constitution states that NGOs “shall have the right to practice their activities freely, and administrative agencies may not interfere in their affairs or dissolve them,” the language in the draft infringes on their right to operate independently on a day-to-day basis and interferes in larger issues of executive decision-making and organizational structure.
Human Rights Watch outlined some of the draft law’s problematic provisions, highlighting how much it would undermine the autonomy of independent groups in Egypt. For one, the law provides that all operations and decisions by NGOs are subject to a veto by the ministry—even internal board decisions established through consensus.
Additionally, the draft’s vague language of what constitutes infractions contrasts starkly with the specific language that outlines the consequences of doing so. For example, the draft authorizes the ministry to dissolve an NGO if it “fails to achieve its goals,” but does not explain what would constitute such failure.
The draft law further weakens NGOs by isolating them from allies abroad and choking their main sources of income. It strains foreign funding and transnational partnerships, including from Egyptian expatriate organizations, and makes such cooperation contingent on the approval of a proposed committee composed of an odd mix of bureaucrats, ranging from the Central Bank to intelligence services. The draft provides no stipulations for what would prompt a stamp of approval (or lack of one) from this committee.
The draft bill would be particularly injurious to advocacy and democracy groups that currently rely on international support and funding for survival, as much of the Egyptian public has distanced itself from these groups that have been the target of a long-time campaign fueled by government and media voices that breed anti-dissident, pro-government propaganda.
Part of an Increasingly Repressive Pattern
The Law on Associations is only the latest segment of a wider crackdown on public space and civil society in Egypt. Similar to the Protest Law passed last October that has been used to arrest hundreds of human rights defenders and even unknowing bystanders, this draft law aims to disempower civilians engaged in political and social organizing while extending the oversight of security forces.
By framing its language as motivated by “national security” concerns meant to preserve “national unity,” the draft law embodies the ways in which Egypt’s civilian spaces are becoming hyper-policed and constricted while dissent and public action are increasingly demonized.
Indeed, this anxious reaction to civil society organizing was a key staple of the Mubarak regime. And while the 2011 uprising created avenues for bolstering civil society in powerful ways, every power holder since then—from SCAF to Morsi to Sisi—has made a concerted and increasing effort to stifle civil society’s scope and influence.
Currently, the offices of rights groups are being raided and their leading organizers arrested. At the same time, former members of the Mubarak regime’s National Democratic Party are being pardoned and welcomed to contest upcoming elections, while security forces continue to operate with no transparency or civic oversight. These actions are the harbingers of a continuously devolving political and social landscape that is growing more repressive, militarized, and unrestrained.
Funding Repression by Proxy
There is no way to overstate how destructive this law would be to Egypt’s civil society organizations and rights groups, who remain one of the last outlets monitoring abuses and holding authorities accountable in a context where there are otherwise no checks on authoritarianism.
For decades, the United States has poured money into democracy promotion efforts that support civil society organizations. Alongside this, however, the United States has devoted a much larger amount in military aid to protect the very regime these NGOs are supposed to counteract.
The result of this imbalance is that the United States, along with other international agencies, effectively finances the repression of civil society by proxy. This hypocritical policy inevitably backfires, as it did last summer when Egyptian authorities arrested 43 NGO workers in Egypt, including 16 Americans.
Earlier this spring, with the election of Abdelfattah El-Sisi, the United States resumed its $1.5 billion in military aid to Egypt, citing a return to democratic progress. The decision was myopic. Democratic progress must be assessed on a local level and through the ways the government deals with its constituents, rather than through narrow definitions of ballot box success. Such gratuitous praise legitimizes the regime’s repressive trajectory.
Though American credibility and influence in Egypt and the region at large is in decline, the United States needs to re-evaluate the destabilizing policies it already has in place. The United States can deliver a more consistent message in its concern for civil society freedoms by making more conditional the political legitimization it presents to its allies in Cairo as well as its offers of expanded economic opportunities. Such a shift needs to happen until Egyptian authorities abide by a rights-protecting framework that does not criminalize legitimate public action and democratic dissent.