Nov. 10 marked the expiry of the ultimatum given to Egyptian NGOs to “adjust their legal status” by registering under law 84, which dates back to ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
The registration decree was issued in July by Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali, supported by amendments to the penal code, and approved by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
It states that citizens who receive material or logistical funding from local or foreign bodies for the purpose of destabilizing national security will be sentenced to life imprisonment and a fine of no less than 500,000 Egyptian pounds ($69,924).
With the passing of the deadline, NGOs that have not registered risk facing criminal charges, while some opted to close down and others have started the registration process.
There is heated debate about whether the decree and amendment will enhance security or clamp down on civil society.
Several NGOs refused to register in principle, saying the law contradicted the nature of civil society.
Magda Adli, head of Al-Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, said: “The law allows the authorities to interfere in the NGO’s affairs, including sources of funding, which makes it no different from any governmental body.”
She added that NGOs are supposed to monitor the performance of government, not the other way round.
Mohamed Abdel Azim, head of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, said registration under this law will give the government the right to approve only activities that serve its interests. “This will be a problem for our center, which basically works on torture.”
Saad al-Din Ibrahim, head of the Ibn Khaldoun Center for Developmental Studies, said his organization will not register under the law. “If the government objects to our status, we’ll file a lawsuit and I’m sure we’ll win,” he said.
“I’ve actually been through many legal battles with the government, and the verdict is usually in our favor.”
Concerns over the law’s negative impact on civil society were expressed in a statement signed by 29 Egyptian NGOs: “The signatories of this statement believe that the law defeats the purpose of civil society since it aims at closing down independent organizations and authorizing only ones that will abide by the government’s rules.”
Hafez Abu Saeda, chairman of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights, said the law violates article 75 the 2014 constitution on “the right to establish associations,” and “the right to form NGOs and institutions on a democratic basis, which shall acquire legal personality upon notification.”
That is why no action should be taken before a new law is issued in line with the constitution, Abu Saeda added.
“A law was already drafted by a civil society committee formed in 2013 under the former minister of social solidarity,” he said.
“Why not wait until this law is approved by the upcoming parliament, especially since it was approved by a large number of organizations?” The current law is also against international charters and democratic principles, since it deprives citizens of one of their basic political and civil rights, he added.
George Ishak, an activist and member of the National Council for Human Rights, said it is unlikely that any measures will be taken against NGOs that have not registered until the election of a new parliament.
The Ministry of Social Solidarity “is only negotiating with NGOs to adjust their status, but a new law will be issued by the upcoming parliament,” he said.
Legal expert Essam al-Islambouli said the amendment of the penal code does not target NGOs, but rather aims to fight terrorism. “The amendment aims to impose harsher penalties on those who receive funding in order to destabilize security.
I don’t know why NGOs are making a fuss about it,” he said, adding that some terrorist groups have used NGOs to store weapons.
A source at the Ministry of Interior, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said more than 80 NGOs in Egypt are operating outside the law.
“Some activists also work for foreign NGOs that have no offices in Egypt, and some of them attended conferences and training sessions without notifying the authorities,” he said, adding that Egypt is targeted by several countries that want to jeopardize its national security.
The National Security Bureau estimates the funds received by 57 NGOs in Egypt as of July 2014 at more than 100 million Egyptian pounds ($13,984,843).
Wali said nine foreign NGOs and eight Egyptian ones applied for registration before the deadline. “We are currently in the process of surveying NGOs that have not adjusted their status,” she said.
A source at the Ministry of Social Solidarity said a day after the deadline that looking into the files of unregistered NGOs will be postponed because “the ministry does not have a clear vision of the measures to be taken against those NGOs.”