The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood recently proposed a draft civil society law. Submitted by the Ministry of State for Administrative Development, led by Dr. Mohammed Ali Bashar, a Muslim Brotherhood and FJP leader, the draft would replace current law No. 84 of 2002. This coincided with the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs releasing a draft civil society law. Both drafts impose the same restrictions on civil society, subjecting their operations to continuous oversight and control by administrative and security bodies.
The latest version of the draft law submitted by the FJP retains aspects of a draft submitted by the party in April 2012 to the dissolved People’s Assembly, prior to Mohamed Morsi’s election. However the newest version includes key amendments and changes that bear a resemblance to the repressive law drafted by the Ministry of Social Affairs.
The 2013 draft shows a dangerous shift in the FJP’s stance regarding civil society laws. In March 2012, the Human Rights Committee in the FJP-majority People’s Assembly refused a draft law that restricted civil society activities. In April 2012, the FJP proposed a different draft NGO law containing many positive points, including allowing the establishment of NGOs by notification,. The draft also simplified registration for foreign organizations, making the process clear and uncomplicated as stipulated in a draft law proposed by 56 human rights and development NGOs. The FJP’s April bill also introduced fines and administrative sanctions on organizations that violated its provisions rather than the prison sentences that have been a feature of Egyptian NGO laws since 1956. While the Committee on Human Rights in the People’s Assembly subsequently introduced amendments that restricted many of the positive articles, it still contains several advantages over the current law.
What changed between the better FJP NGO law of April 2012 and the more restrictive draft of February 2013 was Dr. Mohamed Morsi’s election as president and the formation of his government. These changes are a result of the convergence of interests of both the FJP and the Ministry of Social Affairs .
The draft law submitted by the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs and the FJP draft law submitted by the Ministry of State for Administrative Development differ in a few details, but are similar in their overall vision for civil society and activists. The vision expressed by the two drafts is in fact so similar that even the typos are identical.
Both texts regard civil society and its employees as likely embezzlers who threaten Egypt’s national security, and thus the two drafts provide for their continuous supervision by various regulatory and security apparatuses. They also both provide for prison penalties as a deterrent to violating the law. Perhaps the most obvious feature of the two laws is their attempt to nationalize civil society, incorporating it into the state administration.
This process of nationalizing civil society is reflected by how the drafts place NGO funds under regulations for public funds. The text expands the number of entities who oversee NGOs to include the Central Auditing Organization, the Administrative Prosecution, and other bodies who regulate the use of government funds. This measure violates the philosophy of civil society as a private space for citizens to organize themselves independent of government institutions. Indeed the penal code is already sufficient to deal with the financial wrongdoing of any individual or group.
For the first time, the two drafts explicitly allow the security apparatus to regulate NGOs through what are called ‘Steering Committees.’ These are just one of the many security agencies and ministries tasked with regulating international organizations, licensing them, and renewing their license to work in Egypt.
Both drafts also feature arbitrary measures to control NGOs’ funding sources, particularly foreign funding, but they differ in the details of who has authority to grant approval. The Ministry of Social Affairs’ draft places that power in the hands of the Steering Committee, while the FJP draft leaves it up to the competent minister. This difference is likely due to the party’s desire to monopolize the approval or denial of funding, without any role for the security agencies.
The two drafts also restrict the work of foreign organizations, both laws featuring almost identical wording. They both give the Steering Committee the authority to register foreign organizations, and stipulate that activities of foreign organizations must be consistent with the needs of Egyptian society. This overbroad provision will allow the Steering Committee to control NGO registrations. The law also puts impossible conditions in place for foreign organizations to work in Egypt: it is not permissible to license foreign organizations that are proven to accept direct or indirect government funding, or if their activities aim to spread political policies or trends of a political party in the country or if its activities are a breach of national sovereignty.
Neither draft refrains from placing criminal statutes into the heart of laws on NGO work, statues which include prison sentences for breaking certain provisions of the law, such as working for an NGO that receives foreign funding or sending money abroad.
The proposal of this draft law by the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing the FJP is a continuation of their work to repress civil society by all possible means. It is inaccurate when they claim their draft is superior to that of the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs. Indeed, both drafts subject NGOs to continuous and close monitoring so as to make their work practically impossible.
A close reading of the Brotherhood’s proposed draft shows the MB is not interested in creating a democratic law for civil society organizations in Egypt, since they are now governing Egypt. While they are responsible for forming the government, placing them above any law that might regulate their operations, they will benefit from limiting the freedom of citizens to organize themselves.
Mohamed Zaree is the Egypt Program Manager for the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS).