Strangling Civil Society with Repressive Laws: Morsi’s Bill to Nationalize Civic Activity Must be Retracted

In Statements and Position Papers by CIHRS

Yesterday, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) participated in a meeting with the  Ministry of Justice to discuss drafting a new NGO law. CIHRS representatives at the meeting objected to including a bill drafted by the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs in the meeting’s agenda, as this bill seems completely unrelated to the regulation of civil society, which was supposed to be the topic of the meeting’s discussion. Rather, the bill seeks to nationalize civil society by almost turning civic associations and NGOs into administrative offices monitored by multiple security agencies under what the bill calls the “steering committee,” according to a provision in the bill which defines an explicit role for the security establishment in monitoring civil society for the first time in Egyptian history.

As part of this nationalization process of civil society—a phenomenon seen only in the most totalitarian of states—the law considers associations’ private assets to be public funds and their staff to be government employees under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs, which is thereby given broad authorities over associations, including Judicial arrest authority  and to search their premises at any time.  In a clear display of the government’s hostility towards human rights principles, the law limits the work of associations to the fields of development and social welfare and treats human rights organizations and all organizations dedicated to raising awareness about legislation and the constitution as political parties.  The law further prohibits associations from receiving foreign funding and bans all civic associations from undertaking field research and opinion polls, as well as what the law calls “civic work” – i.e. all activities which aim to “achieve development and humanitarian goals” – except with explicit permission from the security establishment.

The Cabinet discussed this bill three months ago and approved it with only minor observations, requesting that the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs put it up for “public debate.” Yesterday’s meeting seems to have been part of this required “debate”. The ministry representative at the meeting asserted that several ministries and security agencies had helped to write the proposed law, confirming that it is indeed a bill sponsored by the government in its entirety, not just by the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs.

The philosophy behind the NGO bill  is authoritarian in nature. It is even more restrictive than the law currently in effect (Law 84/2002) and demonstrates more hostility towards civil society than all NGO laws and bills drafted under Abd al-Nasser, Mubarak, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Moreover, it violates Article 51 of the new constitution, which states that civic associations  shall be formed by notification. Although the bill in question does use the term “notification,” in practice it violates the terms of the constitution, as it would allow the government to interfere in the daily work of associations and in determining the acceptability of candidates for their boards of directors.  It would also permit the security establishment to determine what activities to allow or disallow by granting the security-related “steering committee” the power to approve or deny funding to associations based on the specific activities for which it would be used.

The new law would ban any ways of organizing civic work other than civic associations, which would criminalize several already existing human rights groups, as well as youth, artistic, and literary societies and all independent forms of civic organization that have emerged after the revolution. Indeed, the law, if enacted, might prompt various civil society organizations to move their headquarters abroad, a pattern seen in dictatorships such as Qaddafi’s Libya, Syria, and Zimbabwe.

The philosophy underlying the proposed law captures Morsi’s government’s hostility towards civil society and attempts to control civil society’s work in various ways. It does not respect Egypt’s international commitments under conventions ratified by Egypt or uphold international standards on citizens’ rights to form associations and defend human rights.

The Ministry of Justice’s call for a broad-based public dialogue is positive only if a serious  bill is presented which merits discussion. Otherwise, it will merely create the illusion that genuine consultations are underway, when, in reality, the intention is merely to pass off  the bill in question as a product of a “democratic” process of negotiations and discussions. (In fact, a government representative at yesterday’s meeting even suggested that the outcome of the discussions should be determined by a vote of those gathered, in order to create the impression that the process had somehow been “democratic.”)

CIHRS thus urges the government either to withdraw the proposed law and consider the bill proposed by the 56 rights groups and civil society associations as a starting point for discussion or to consider the Minister of Justice’s proposal to revisit the relevant provisions of the Civil Code which have been abolished.  Importantly, the Minister of Justice had informed CIHRS prior to the meeting that the bill proposed by 56 rights organizations and civil society associations would be presented as one of the alternative drafts at the meeting; however, the folder which was given to the participants did not include a copy of this bill.

CIHRS representatives at the meeting said that they would not take part in any meetings discussing any proposals intending to nationalize civil society and turn it into a government entity, including – and especially – the bill in question.

CIHRS was represented in the meeting by Mohamed Zaree and Mohammed al-Ansary, while the Ministry of Social Affairs was represented by its legal advisor, Dr. Mohammed al-Demerdesh. Also present at the meeting were representatives from the National Council for Human Rights, the General Federation of Civic Associations and Institutions, and the Cabinet’s Social Contract Center. The meeting was moderated by Dr. Haytham al-Baqali from the Ministry of Justice.

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