President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued an amendment to the Penal Code on September 21, penalizing the receipt of foreign funding with a life sentence and the payment of fines.
The decision follows an ultimatum by the Ministry of Social Solidarity for all NGOs working outside its scope to legalize their status, seen by some as an attempted crackdown on the work of human rights organizations in Egypt.
The amendment, published by the Official Gazette, concerns Article 78 of the Penal Code. It stipulates that an individual requesting or receiving transferred or liquid money or arms or equipment from a foreign country or a foreign or local private organization, with the aim of pursuing acts harmful to national interests or destabilizing to general peace or the country’s independence and its unity, shall be penalized with a life sentence and a fine of no less than LE500,000 and up to the amount he or she is promised.
A choice between a death sentence or a life sentence is made by the judge in cases where civil servants face the same charges, apart from the fine.
Those who mediate for the request or receipt of these funds or arms in any form of writing shall also face the same charges.
An earlier version of the article stipulated a prison sentence to penalize these charges as well, but did not specify a life sentence, while the fine was set at a minimum of LE1,000. The generic prison sentence would be a life sentence if the defendant is a civil servant.
The earlier version also limited the identity of agencies offering funds to foreign states and their affiliated bodies. The current amendment extends the funding parties to non-state actors and private organizations, both locally and internationally.
Finally, the amendment criminalizes receiving funds, arms or equipment, while the earlier article mentioned funds or any other benefits.
The amendment takes place in the midst of a crackdown on nongovernmental organizations that engage in civil society work outside the scope of the Ministry of Social Solidarity’s control. Many of these organizations work in the field of human rights and receive foreign funding to sustain their work, which the government deems harmful and has been trying to control.
The Ministry of Social Solidarity had sent an ultimatum to all NGOs working outside the scope of the 2002 civil associations law to legalize their status by November, a position many human rights organizations are resisting as part of their objection to the nationalization of civil society in Egypt.
The decision comes amidst the government crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, ousted from power in July 2013 by the military. Local authorities have repeatedly warned that the organization is being supported by foreign funds and aims to destabilize the country after its ouster from power.
Ahmed Ezzat, a human rights lawyer, expressed concerns about the amendments, saying that they are unconstitutional because there is no article in the Constitution that describes the concepts of “harming national interest” and “destabilizing general peace.”
“This means that the article can be arbitrarily interpreted by those who implement the law. It also means that these charges can be easily addressed to someone who criticizes the government or who has oppositional politics,” he says. “This could include people in opposition parties, in civil society or in journalism.”
Ezzat also criticizes the broadness of the identity of institutions offering funds or arms as stipulated by the amendment. “A student receiving a fellowship to pursue their studies abroad may be criminalized under this amendment, for example,” he says.
Finally, the human rights lawyer raises concerns about handing down a death sentence in case a civil servant is found guilty of these charges. According to him, death sentences in national security cases was always limited to war time. Extending it to times of peace is a worrying escalation, he says.