We’re Not Building a ‘Police State’

Why Egypt’s draft NGO law is transparent, fair, and a big step forward for democracy.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Egypt is transitioning to democracy, and a well-functioning civil society is a key part of that process. To that end, President Mohamed Morsy’s office has put forward a draft law that would regulate NGOs operating in Egypt. Some have argued that the legislation, which is currently being considered by the Shura Council, would repress civil society — but a fair reading of the law shows that this is entirely baseless.

"The Muslim Brotherhood lays the foundations for a new police state by exceeding the Mubarak regime’s mechanisms to suppress civil society," read the headline of a statement by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, signed by 40 NGOs, enumerating their concerns with the draft NGO law. The presidency has carefully reviewed these concerns — as well as similar issues raised by international NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch — and found that most are either based on speculations or misinterpretation of the law, or have already been duly addressed in the final draft.

First, the statement claims that "[t]he bill seeks to subject civic entities to strict executive oversight under what is termed the "Coordinating Committee," which is given broad powers to adjudicate in all matters related to foreign funding for national organizations and the licensing and operation of foreign NGOs in Egypt." This is completely baseless for a number of reasons: The main objective of forming the coordinating committee is to consolidate all government entities with which international NGOs deal into one, so as to facilitate registration and limit any bureaucratic complications.

The law includes guarantees for transparency and doesn’t grant the committee any control over organizations. The committee must provide a legally accepted reason for any decision regarding registration or funding requested by the NGOs, thus limiting its ability to interfere or impose restrictions on the NGOs for political or authoritarian motives. Moreover, the committee has no authority to stop illegal activities or funding or to dissolve an NGO without a final court order.

The draft legislation also created a clear reference point with regards to denying registration or objecting to activities or funding — the Egyptian Constitution and our country’s legal framework. Once foreign-funded NGOs are registered or obtain the general approval to receive funds they operate freely and receive funding, provided they notify the coordination committee without requiring or waiting for any other approval.

The NGOs’ statement admits the draft does not include a provision stipulating that Egypt’s security agencies will be present in the coordination committee. However, it assumes that the security agencies will nevertheless be part of the committee, and would therefore arbitrarily bar organizations from receiving foreign funding. In fact, the presidency has removed the provision calling for security agencies’ involvement from its draft precisely to avoid this possibility.

The main philosophy behind the law is to help transform Egypt from a police state into a civil, democratic state governed by the rule of law. With regards to the composition of the coordination committee, the draft allows the relevant minister to appoint half its members, while the other half would be chosen by an elected body (the National Federation for Civil Society). It would be normal for the competent minister to consult with other ministries as part of inter-agency coordination, which also exists in other democracies. But regardless of the composition of the committee, the law limits the control of any of its members over the NGOs by adding a condition that the decisions of the committee must be based on legally accepted reasons. The activities that are considered "illegal" are clearly listed in the law — the creation of military or paramilitary formations, targeting profit, and partisan political activities.

Another concern raised by the 40 Egyptian NGOs was that the bill "limits the right of associations to develop the financial resources necessary to pursue their activities by making their right to collect donations conditional upon completion of a process of notification and the subsequent approval of the administrative authorities." This interpretation is simply inaccurate: The bill permits NGOs to freely collect donations from Egyptians inside and outside Egypt, and from foreign residents in Egypt. It requires only "notification" in case of foreign donations.

Similarly, the statement complains that the draft law "would require organizations to notify the Coordinating Committee and to receive its official approval before receiving foreign funding." It is as if the statement’s authors are seemingly calling for the unrestricted flow of foreign funding into Egypt, without any tracking by the government. This contradicts international norms of regulating foreign funding, which primarily aims to avoid the possibility of laundering terrorist money. As the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe, composed of independent experts in the field of constitutional law, stated in its assessment of the draft, "this is a necessary, reasonable, and acceptable justification for the stricter control of funding from foreign donators."

Furthermore, the law provides a number of very liberal provisions to simplify the process by which civil society organizations can work effectively in Egypt. Specifically, in order to begin work as a not-for-profit organization, and hence to benefit from various tax and other financial benefits, organizations simply have to notify the relevant administrative body. If there is no objection within 30 days, the organization is considered duly registered. Similarly, the process for receiving funding and donations has been significantly simplified.

The presidency’s draft follows a very simple and important principle: The executive branch should not be the arbiter of any alleged violations of the law by civil society organizations. The draft legislation is very clear that any concerns about civil society organizations’ compliance with the law must be decided by the courts. The executive simply does not have the power to ban organizations or stop their work without due process. Finally, the coordinating committee itself, which includes members selected from representatives of civil society organizations, also represents an effort to achieve a measure of transparency and accountability to stakeholders.

It is unfortunate that objections are being raised to the draft NGO law without accurate references to the actual text. We urge everyone to read the draft legislation, which is available online, and form their own opinions.

Nevertheless, we appreciate the points raised by our friends around the world. We would like to reiterate that this is an Egyptian law that must be developed for Egypt’s needs and will be vetted by Egypt’s parliament. Each country meets is own needs differently. Over the last decade, we have seen many democracies struggle with how to maintain a vibrant NGO sector while ensuring that charitable giving is directed toward its intended objectives. In some democracies, the need to protect public safety resulted in opaque procedures, secret evidence, intimidation tactics, and what has been described as a "climate of fear." This law attempts to achieve the balance for Egypt without invoking any such draconian measures.

That some have chosen to be critical of the law is perfectly fine, but we need to appreciate the complexity of the situation. Egypt is going through a transition from 60 years of autocracy to a nascent democracy. President Morsy is acutely aware of the importance of civil society organizations in fostering a healthy political transition, and this
law is one part of reshaping the legal and cultural environment to better support our emerging democracy.

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