Bill Curbing Civil Society in Egypt: A Legal Appraisal
On November 30, 2016, the Egyptian parliament suddenly approved a secretly-drafted bill regulating the work of civic associations, with no public discussion at a time when Egypt is experiencing extremely fragile economic circumstances. This bill had been introduced by the Egypt Support Coalition –the majority bloc in Parliament that supports the government– and replaces Law No. 84 of 2002.
Parliament approved this new bill without waiting for the bill that the government had prepared after consulting the law’s stakeholders. After the bill’s initial approval, Parliament sent it to the State Council’s Fatwa and Legislation Department. The latter returned the bill to Parliament after one week even though undesirable bills usually remain with the council longer. The State Council made some remarks on the bill that did not address its most concerning texts. Parliament voted on the bill at night, passing it with the required majority. For the bill to become a binding law, it need now only be sent to the Egyptian president for promulgation. After promulgation, the law will be published in the Official Gazette, at which point Egypt’s independent civil society can be brought under state control or liquidated.
This article will address the circumstances of the bill’s approval and its content before evaluating the bill, and explaining what may eventually become of it, i.e., whether it will gain presidential approval.
First: The Circumstances Surrounding Parliament’s Approval of the Bill
After discussions with experts and many civic associations, a governmental bill regulating the work of civic associations was drafted. The Ministry of Social Solidarity submitted the bill to the Cabinet, which approved it on November 1, 2016 in preparation for sending it to Parliament to be debated and voted on. A few days before the Cabinet sent its bill to Parliament, newspapers reported that Parliament had begun debating a bill regulating the work of civic associations that was introduced by 204 MPs from the Egypt Support Coalition. The bill presented to Parliament for adoption during the first days of its sitting. It was debated and voted on extremely quickly.
Some people were hoping that Parliament would reject this dubious bill in anticipation of the well-studied bill that the Cabinet had approved. It is important to note, however, that Parliament’s adoption of the bill is not tantamount to promulgation. Article 123 of the Constitution reserves for the Egyptian president the right to promulgate laws that Parliament adopts, or to reject them by sending them back to Parliament within 30 days of receiving them. In the latter case, Parliament can still pass the bill into law with a two-thirds majority of its members. Does the president intend to send this bill back to Parliament?
Second: The Substance of the Regulation that the Bill Introduces
Even though human rights activists criticized the governmental bill -which was prepared in 2013 by a committee of experts formed by former Minister of Social Affairs Ahmed al-Borai- these activists consider said bill “progressive” compared to the bill that Parliament approved at the end of November 2016. The bill that Parliament adopted does not regulate the work of civic associations; rather, it devised texts aimed at terminating the work of these associations, especially those that defend human rights. This aim is clear from the following evidence.
The bill that Parliament adopted and referred to the State Council for review included a text subjecting the boards of civic associations to the Law of Illegal Earning. The State Council did not approve the text. This paved the way for security intervention in citizens’ private affairs. The text subjecting associations to the Law of Illegal Earning was replaced by a text subjecting them to the Accountability State Authority.
Article 87 of the bill criminalizes conducting field studies and opinion polls –or publishing them or their results– without first obtaining approval from the bodies concerned. This provision indicates that those who drafted this bill do not know the first thing about development work, which requires conducting field research and polling citizens to determine their needs, and the quality of the services provided to them in the geographical area wherein the association operates. These mechanisms are therefore the tools of the scientific method that civic associations must employ to identify the development work priorities in planning and implementation.
Article 21 stipulates that associations cannot open headquarters or offices in any governorate without written approval from the minister concerned, or someone he or she delegates. Civic society activists fear that the security apparatuses will control the issuance of these approvals.
Article 23 requires that associations notify the “administrative body” [which the law defines as “the ministry concerned with the affairs of civic associations and work”] at least 30 working days before receiving or collecting donations within Egypt. The association must wait for the issuance of the approval of that activity from the body concerned. The administrative body is obliged to notify the “National Regulatory Agency for the Work of Foreign Nongovernmental Organizations” (hereafter, the “National Regulatory Agency”), and the funds in question may not be spent before the necessary approval is issued.
Article 13 stipulates that associations wanting to work in border regions must obtain the governor’s approval, as well as other approvals and authorizations before conducting their activities. This text did not specify the border regions; rather, it left it up to the prime minister to do so via a decision they issue after consulting the governor concerned. The prime minister could define these regions in an expansive manner that includes entire governorates such as Matrouh, North Sinai, South Sinai, Port Said, Suez, and Aswan.
The final paragraph of Article 13 bans associations from conducting any activity that falls within the scope of the work of political parties, or professional or labor unions, or that has a political nature. This ban therefore encompasses the work of most associations working in human rights, monitoring elections and referendums, and other areas of development and awareness raising.
Article 14 obligates associations to work “in accordance with the state’s plan and development needs”. Associations are also prohibited from conducting opinion polls, or publishing or making their results available, or from conducting field studies, or presenting their results before they are presented to the National Regulatory Agency so that it may “ascertain their integrity and neutrality”.
An association may only accept monetary payments exceeding EGP10,000 [US$525] via bank check. The association is obligated to inform the administrative body and the National Regulatory Agency, and to wait for their approval before spending this sum. Consequently, any person wanting to make a charitable donation to the association must first open an account and wait for a checkbook to be issued.
An association may not become affiliated with, join, or participate in a civic activity with a network of international, regional, or local nongovernmental associations, or organizations without first obtaining the administrative body’s authorization and the National Regulatory Agency’s approval. This restriction is a real obstacle to networking between associations and organizations conducting similar and convergent activities. It also limits their ability to capitalize on the experiences and capacities of international and regional organizations. The administrative body will only issue its authorization after approval by the National Regulatory Agency, whose composition is predominantly of a security-related character. Security figures are usually disinclined to cooperate with international and regional organizations, which are constantly accused of lacking objectivity and conspiring against Egypt.
Furthermore, paragraph C of Article 14 prohibits associations from concluding or amending any form of agreement with a foreign actor within, or outside the country before the National Regulatory Agency approves it.
The bill establishes the National Regulatory Agency for the Work of Foreign Nongovernmental Organizations. This agency is formed via a decision from the Egyptian president. It is headed by a full-time president and includes representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of International Cooperation, the ministry concerned, the General Intelligence, the Central Bank, the Money Laundering Unit, and the Administrative Control Authority. This agency –whose composition is no less important than that of the National Security Council– is tasked with approving the work of foreign organizations, granting these organizations permission to obtain money or funding from outside the country, ascertaining that the associations’ funds are spent for the purposes set for them, and receiving notifications of foreign funding.
Those who introduced this bill are depending on this agency to paralyze the 77 foreign (both Arab and non-Arab) associations operating in Egypt; under the bureaucracy prevailing within the state’s administrative apparatus, these organizations must notify the agency of all their data, activities, sources of funding, programs, protocols, and memorandums of cooperation with actors in Egypt using the form prepared for that purpose.
Article 66 prohibited associations and entities subject to the bill from using temporary, permanent, or volunteer foreign experts or workers without first obtaining authorization from the agency. This restriction encompasses all Egyptian and foreign associations and organizations subject to the law’s provisions, irrespective of their name, form, or the nature of their activity.
Article 24 stipulated that the National Regulatory Agency must approve funding, whether in the form of money, grants, or endowments from Egyptian or foreign natural or legal persons from inside or outside the country. The agency has 60 working days to respond to a funding request, and the association is obligated not to disburse the granted funds during this period. A lack of response from the agency during this period is tantamount to non-approval of the funding. The bill prepared by the government, on the other hand, considered a lack of response during the 60-day period tantamount to approval. The people’s representatives were therefore more governmental than the government itself.
The bill levies on every foreign or regional organization wanting to open an office or branch in Egypt a fee that it must pay when requesting permission, or requesting to renew or modify this permission. The fee must not exceed EGP300,000 or the equivalent American dollar value [US$15,790], and must be paid in the currency determined by the administrative body. The money is deposited in the Civic Associations Support Fund, whose establishment the bill stipulates.
Not even voluntary work escapes the bill’s restrictions. Volunteer organizations must pay EGP10,000 [US$525] for authorization to operate. Such organizations include associations that bury the deceased, which rely on charitable donations and do not receive any state support.
The bill’s most concerning aspect is the consequences of non-compliance with its restrictions and prohibitions. These penalties are both administrative and penal.
- The administrative penalty, handed down by the competent court upon request by the administrative body, is the dissolution of the association in many cases. These cases include conducting activities not found in the association or organization’s statute, moving to a new headquarters without notifying the administrative body, and not conducting “serious” programs for a period of one year. The criterion of seriousness is determined by the competent administrative body under court oversight.
- Regarding criminal penalties, the bill is more repressive than the government’s bill, despite the (incorrect) statements by the head of Parliament’s Social Solidarity Committee that it does not include custodial punishments. The government’s bill had stipulated fines for violating its articles, but Parliament’s bill also included imprisonment.
Article 87 stipulated one to five years of imprisonment and a fine of EGP50,000 to 1,000,000 [US$2,600 to $52,640] for the crimes of helping, or participating with a foreign organization in the conduct of a civic activity in Egypt without permission; and, of conducting or participating in the conduct of field studies, or opinion polls in the field of civic work without approval. Similarly, Article 88 punishes perpetrators of other crimes, such as relocating an association’s headquarters without notifying the competent administrative body, with up to one year of imprisonment and a fine from EGP20,000 to 500,000 [US$1,050 to $26,320].
The concern is that these punishments will be used against persons who deliver a lecture, write an article, or conduct an academic study for a foreign organization operating inside or outside Egypt, in both of the following instances: without personally ascertaining that the organization has obtained the required authorization and approvals to operate inside Egypt, or without personally obtaining authorization or approval from the relevant bodies for said lecture, article, or research. Consequently, researchers and academics will have to avoid cooperating with foreign civic associations and organizations or their branches, in or outside Egypt lest they become criminals, which is certainly one of the goals of those who drafted this bill.
Third: The Bill’s Prospects
After Egypt’s Parliament approved the civic associations bill, its speaker declared that “this is a message to the whole world that Egypt is an independent, sovereign state and that this Parliament is united”. Amazingly, the Egypt Support Coalition’s statement declared that its bill is aimed primarily at regulating and facilitating the work of associations and institutions, not –as misunderstood– to restrict or obstruct them.
In reality, these statements are worthless given what the bill’s texts reveal. The bill aims, first and last, to restrict civic society institutions and, ultimately, to liquidate them and close the door to civic and rights work in Egypt.
Parliament’s civic associations bill made the right of individuals to form associations contingent on the will of the administrative and security authorities, which do not want associations to exist, especially those involved in rights work. The bill’s goal is to eliminate these organizations one by one. This inclination is reflected by the security authorities’ persistence in arresting human rights activists; seizing these activists’ funds and preventing them from disposing of said funds; preventing the activists who remain in Egypt from leaving the country; closing the offices of Egyptian and foreign civic associations and organizations working in various areas of human rights, and opposed to violations of these rights; accusing people cooperating with these groups of corruption, profiteering, and enrichment at the expense of national interest in an attempt to tear down the nation; and so forth.
Now that Parliament has adopted the civic associations bill, the rights associations’ only means of resisting it is to implore the Egyptian president not to promulgate it once Parliament sends it to him. As mentioned earlier, Article 123 of the Constitution grants the president the power to reject laws and send them back to Parliament.
During the first Monthly Youth Conference in the second week of December, one of the participants raised the topic of the civic associations bill, which stifles civic work and violates Egypt’s Constitution and international obligations. After the conference’s session, the Egyptian president and the Speaker of Parliament had a quick discussion wherein the former may have directed the latter to reconsider the bill before sending it to him. However, the statements by the head of the Social Solidarity Committee (who had introduced the bill) that “Parliament will not back down from the civic associations law under any pressure” do not herald an imminent breakthrough, or give any hope that Parliament will revise its position on this bill any time soon.