New Draft Law to Regulate NGOs and Civil Society: Tangible Progress Along with Flaws of the Past

People’s Assembly - Photo By: Mohamed Zin ElDin

Joint Statement

28 May 2012

The undersigned organizations express their appreciation for the efforts put forth by the Human Rights Committee of the People’s Assembly to develop a new bill, put forward by the Freedom and Justice Party, to regulate non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society institutions.

The undersigned organizations also acknowledge that the articles of the bill appear to be relatively progressive, if compared either to the articles of the law currently in place or to the draft laws that have been and continue to be prepared by the Ministry of Social Affairs and the General Fedration for NGOs to be imposed on civil society.

The latest version of this bill might be credited with moving in the right direction in terms of limiting some of the arbitrary administrative interference in the work of civil society as well as for adopting a system of notification upon the establishment of an association rather than a system requiring prior authorization. In addition, the bill would require the administrative authorities to defer to the judiciary in cases in which there are recognizable reasons to reject the establishment of any organization or to dissolve any organization. However, the undersigned organizations maintain that the bill continues to fall far short of complying with international standards to ensure the freedom and independence of the work of civil society and to protect it from all forms of arbitrary interference and administrative oversight.

In some of its articles, the bill remains captive to the philosophy of control, restriction, and administrative tutelage that was entrenched over the past several decades. We had hoped that the post-revolution parliament would take a firm stance to break away from this philosophy and, at the very least, to follow the approach seen in the new legislation passed in Tunisia and Libya after their respective revolutions, which opened the way for the adoption of modern laws that liberate the work of civil society from administrative domination, security oversight, and bureaucratic obstacles.

The undersigned organizations warn that some of the progressive provisions included in this bill could be circumvented due to other articles that provide for excessive monitoring of civil society work, whether by the administrative authorities or through the unions or implementing regulations.

For example, Article 9 of the bill imposes broad, imprecise restrictions on the activities of organizations, using vague language such as “national unity,” “public order,” and “public morals.” The undersigned organizations assert that such words were often used in the past as the basis on which to reject the establishment and registration of organizations. We reaffirm that even without these provisions, it is illegal according to the public law to establish any organization calling for any act criminalized or prohibited by law. However, terms like “public order,” “national unity,” and “public morals” could easily be used in the future to reject or object to the establishment of some organizations.

In this respect, the undersigned organizations stress the need for legal precision in the wording of some of the provisions of the bill, which could provide a basis for further administrative arbitrariness if accepted in their current form. Specifically, Articles 12 and 13 grant the administrative authorities the power to object to the right of any organization to receive funds or donations, without specifying the legal standards on which such a rejection may be based. These articles therefore provide for the indirect restriction of the activities of organizations.

Moreover, the way in which the bill discriminates against foreign organizations is reminiscent of the tactics of the law currently in place (84/2002), as the bill made the procedures for their registration long and complicated and dependent on both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs. These procedures could cause confusion among foreign organizations regarding the documents required by both ministries, thus leaving us in the same situation as under the current law. In addition, Article 53 of the bill grants the Minister of Social Affairs absolute power to cancel any foreign organization’s permit to carry out its activities as well as to stop such activities if they have violated the organization’s obligations under the law. In contrast, such cases ought to fall under the jurisdiction of the judiciary and be resolved according to its rulings.

The bill continues to view organizations with suspicion and imposes on them unjustified restrictions and financial burdens, such as requiring organizations to publish all records and data on their activities, sources of funding, expenditures, budget reports, and final budget on the website of the regional union with which they’re registered, requiring also that the organization update this information every three months. The bill punishes any organization in violation of this regulation by prohibiting it from receiving funds from abroad and from collecting donations.

Despite the fact that organizations should be able to determine the functions and powers of the unions they established based on their independent will, Article 5 of the bill makes it the responsibility of the regional unions to establish a record for associations and civil society organizations in which all organizations would be registered and where their main documents would be kept. Article 11 also requires organizations to notify the regional union of any activities carried out with other organizations, associations, or other bodies. Article 17 requires organizations to submit a copy of their final budgets and decisions of their general assemblies and administrative boards to the regional union. According to Article 32, the president of the regional union has the power to invite the members of the general assembly to convene to elect a new board for an organization if the number of board members isn’t enough for it to convene.

The undersigned organizations point out that the progressive aspects of the bill can also be easily negated through the expanded scope of the implementing regulations, which are to be prepared by the Ministry of Social Affairs.  The author of the bill should have taken care that the texts would be clear enough to prevent the administrative authorities from imposing more restrictions on the work of civil society through implementing regulations issued without consultation.

The undersigned organizations also note that the bill has not gotten rid of the oppressive trend which violates the inherent right of the founders of an organization and the members of its general assembly to freely formulate its founding statutes and define the regulations of its work, the ways to form its elected bodies, and the system of convening its regular and irregular general assembly – issues addressed in Articles 22, 23, 24, 25, 26 and 27 of the bill.

To the bill’s credit, it removed liberty-depriving penalties for the first time since 1956; however, we believe that the penal system put forth in the bill needs review, as it imposes huge fines. We are of the opinion that any law regulating the work of civil society should not include criminal penalties but rather that such penalties should be replaced by administrative offenses and deprivation of advantages as provided for by law. If an organization or one of its members commits a criminal act, the punishment should be imposed appropriately according to the penal code.

Also regarding penalties which may be imposed on organizations, Article 61 states that the court shall have discretionary powers to choose the kind of penalty according to the gravity of the offense committed by the organization. Thus, assessing punishment becomes a matter of variation between judges, who would have to evaluate the gravity of offenses at their own personal discretion.

The bill suffers from confusion in its perspective on unions.  While stating that such unions are to be established voluntarily, the bill at the same time grants them a form of authority over the very organizations and associations which formed them. This is revealed in the bill’s vision for the roles of the regional unions, as in Article 59, which goes so far as to grant the regional union the right to resort to the judiciary to object to the decisions of the general assembly or the board of an organization or to any of its activities. Article 61 of the bill gives the General Federation for NGOs  the same right, if it deems any organization to have violated its founding statutes. The bill also restricts the right of organizations to establish more than one regional union in the same governorate, as is completely banned in Article 46.

Finally, the undersigned organizations call on the Human Rights Committee and members of parliament to take the time for careful discussion of this bill and to open the space for a wider dialogue with human rights organizations and those involved in civil society work for the purpose of remedying the deficiencies of the current bill and improving its texts to meet the long-awaited aspirations of liberating the work of civil society.

1. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
2. Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies
3. Appropriate Communications Techniques for Development (ACT)
4. Arab Foundation for Civil Society and Human Rights Support
5. Arab Network for Human Rights Studies
6. Arab Penal Reform Organization
7. Arab Program for Human Rights Activists
8. Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression
9. Awlad Al Ard Institute for Human Rights
10. Better Life Foundation – Menya
11. Cairo Center for the Development and Care of the Civil Society
12. Center for Egyptian Women Legal Aids
13. Citizenship Human Rights Organization
14. Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement
15. Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights
16. Egyptian Center for Women Rights
17. Egyptian Democratic Academy
18. Egyptian foundation for Advancement of the Childhood Conditions
19. Egyptian Foundation for Family Development
20. Habi Center For Environmental Rights
21. Heya Women Foundation
22. Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights
23. Egyptian Organization for Human Rights
24. Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination
25. Group for Democratic Development
26. Hisham Mubarak Law Center
27. Kelmetna Foundation for Dialogue and Development
28. Land Center for Human Rights
29. Ma’akom Foundation for Social Aids
30. Martyr Center for Human Rights
31. Mobaderon for Cultural Development and Media – Port Said
32. Nazra for Feminist Studies
33. New Woman Foundation
34. Ommy Foundation for Rights and Development
35. Reswa Center for Human Rights – Port Said
36. Roots Foundation for Sustainable Development
37. The Arab Center for the Independence of Judiciary and the Legal Profession
38. The Campaign of Freedom of Association
39. The Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services
40. The Human Rights Center for the Assistance of Prisoners
41. The International Center for Supporting Right and Freedoms
42. The Women and Memory Foundation