Amending the NGO law: Why did Sisi choose to revise it now and will the changes be meaningful?
 
 
Sisi as he is sworn in for a second term before Parliament – Courtesy: Office of the President’s spokesperson’s Facebook page
 

“No one can challenge the president of the republic, given his rank and experience in preserving national security. And since [the president] said that the [NGO] law needs amendment, it should certainly be reconsidered. Our committee has no qualms about re-examining the law, because, in the end, we care about the common good,” Mohamed Abu Hamed, a member of Parliament’s Social Solidarity Committee, tells Mada Masr.

Abu Hamed’s remarks are in reference to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s decision, in November this year, to amend the beleaguered NGO law, 18 months after ratifying it and despite having previously refused to do so.

The law, ratified in May of last year, was highly controversial as it was deemed restrictive by members of civil society organizations, among others, who stressed how much it would impede their work. One of its most contentious components is the planned formation, by presidential decree, of a new national authority — the National Authority for the Regulation of Non-Governmental Foreign Organizations — with a mandate to monitor all NGOs that receive funding from international sources, and verify that the funds received are being spent in approved ways.

Following pressure from lawmakers in the United States, the president issued a directive to amend the law. However, the way in which the amendments will be determined and implemented, and whether this process will take place within Parliament or through another government body, remains unclear.

On November 5, a participant of the World Youth Forum told Sisi that “the NGO law has become a major obstacle to civil society work and a great burden that prevents NGOs from helping people.” She asked him to use his constitutional powers to return the law to Parliament for discussion, and to initiate a community dialogue around it, in which young people should participate.

Sisi replied that he agreed with her because he believes in the work of civil society. “The law triggers a phobia, because of [widely held] fears that NGOs could harm the country. And this is why it has not already been passed, because of our hope that we can begin to reformulate it in a way that responds appropriately to the role played by civil society organizations, which number more than 50,000.”

However, aside from the comments delivered during the World Youth Forum in November, the president’s decision to revise the law, which he has repeatedly defended in the past, was likely influenced by external pressure. A source from Parliament’s General Secretariat tells Mada Masr that the main reason behind the current call for amendments, as well as the delay in the law’s implementation over the past 18 months, relates to the unrelenting pressure coming from the United States government since the draft legislation’s ratification. Moreover, as the framework put forth by the initial draft treats foreign NGOs operating in Egypt as contractors working for the Egyptian government, statements from US government officials have also alluded to a reduction of US aid to Egypt, in the case of the law being implemented.

For example, in May of last year, Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham — both of whom were at one time members of the Senate appropriations committee — criticized Sisi’s ratification of the law, calling it “draconian legislation.” Their statement stressed the need to examine the human rights situation when considering US aid provision to Egypt, saying that the law “effectively bans the work of human rights groups and makes it harder for charities to operate at a time when Egyptian citizens are more in need of their services than ever before. It also violates Egypt’s stated commitment to protecting constitutionally guaranteed rights including freedom of assembly and association.”

Both senators mentioned Case 173/2011, also known as the NGO foreign funding case, under which a number of Egyptian and international human rights workers — many of whom are US citizens — have been prosecuted on allegations of illegally receiving foreign funds. “We have repeatedly raised this issue with the Government of Egypt and asked them to resolve Case No. 173 and adopt a law that would enable Egyptian and international NGOs to operate without severe restrictions in the country. This legislation further impedes any resolution to this case and makes clear the government’s intent to eradicate civil society.”

At the end of the youth forum in November of this year, Sisi then called on the government to form a committee with the relevant authorities to prepare a comprehensive proposition to amend the law.

On November 7, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbuly acted accordingly, and formed a ministerial committee comprising representatives from the ministries of solidarity, foreign affairs and justice to amend the law and consult relevant stakeholders. The committee would be tasked with studying international models in preparation for submission to Parliament.

However, Abu Hamed explains that, as the president’s letter to the government asking that they amend the law was not disclosed to Parliament, there is a lack of clarity regarding the requested amendments. He adds that, to his knowledge, the prime minister’s decision says that the committee is consulting relevant stakeholders to come up with a draft law that reflects the state’s appreciation for the role played by NGOs.

Abu Hamed points out that there is also a degree of uncertainty permeating the committee’s strategy. For instance, the parliamentary Social Solidarity Committee does not know whether it will be represented within the governmental committee headed by Madbuly, or whether it will be allowed to attend its meetings to follow up on the outcome of discussions.

Abu Hamed concludes that the committee might either formulate amendments to the current law, or prepare a new draft law altogether.

Addressing the question of why the draft law had already been issued, Abu Hamed explains that, when the law was initially drafted, the Social Solidarity Committee was concerned with the prospect of activities harmful to national security becoming prevalent within the country, through local and foreign NGOs. He adds that funding is the primary concern, claiming that funds are often spent on things other than the causes for which they were purportedly raised.

Abu Hamed points out that, by implementing the NGO law, Parliament wanted to govern the procedures pertaining to the receipt and expenditure of funds by NGOs on the one hand, and to establish controls preventing the utilization of these funds in manners that are detrimental to national security on the other. At the time, he says, this concern was legitimate because the country “was badly harmed by civil society receiving outside funding that was used for purposes that harmed national security.”

However, Abu Hamed adds that the delay in issuing the executive regulations of the law over the past 18 months is caused by the presidency conducting further assessments of the law before implementing it. The ratified law was published in the Official Gazette on May 24, 2017, and its provisions stipulate that the executive regulations be issued within two months, which has yet to happen.

Meanwhile, human rights lawyer Negad al-Borai doubts that any potential amendments would enhance the law in a meaningful way.

He tells Mada Masr that the government could have ordered Parliament to approve the law first submitted to the legislature by Ghada Waly in 2016, which included a draft originally prepared by former Minister of Manpower Ahmed al-Borai in 2013 following dialogue and input with various stakeholders.

Instead, it was another draft submitted to Parliament, also in 2016, by the head of the Social Solidarity Committee Abdel Hady al-Qasabi which was adopted for discussion by Parliament. This was in spite of objections from the 25/30 parliamentary bloc, known for its oppositional stance to the authorities, which wanted Waly’s draft discussed instead. At the time, MPs supportive of Qasabi’s draft said that were many commonalities between Waly’s draft and that of Qasabi.  

Borai explains that the salient point is not that Waly’s law should necessarily be adopted, nor Qasabi’s abolished. The government, he says, could utilize the provisions of the current law with a more democratic implementation process, if its intentions were not to impede the work of NGOs. The past few years, he adds, have revealed that the problem has nothing to do with the constitutional provisions or the laws, but the political climate itself.

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