By Dina Grundnes Rosenberg, master student at NewME
Early this April, an unusual newspaper article about Egypt’s controversial law on non-government organizations (NGOs) got every activist’s attention: A complaint had been filed, calling for the imminent closure of an NGO that was violating “public moral” and “serving as an assemble center for sexual deviants”. Sounds disturbing and serious! Though in Europe, its offences would cause little uproar. The NGO was distributing condoms and teaching safe sex among couples of the same gender.
Egyptian civil society has been under ceaseless pressure and scrutiny during the reign of all Egyptian presidents. Presidents come and go, the NGO law and strain on humanitarian and activist groups has mainly remained the same since the first revolution (yes, the one in 1952). In addition, the organizations have often been met with defamation tactics and raids. This year, the NGO law of 2002 has been more vigorously implemented as well as modified to include a maximum of sanctions to those NGOs deemed to be involved in work “harmful to national unity”.
Ultimatums. Lifetime in jail. Fines exceeding 500 000 EGP. These are a few of president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s amendments to Egypt’s NGO law. Bear in mind, this is a law that to begin with was deemed stricter than most similar laws in the region.
The law in question is the 84/2002 law on associations written and put in effect during the reign of ousted president Hosni Mubarak. At the end of his repressive rule, there was hope that better times were on the way. Sadly, neither the military regime of the SCAF or president Mohammed Mursi offered any relief. Since 2011, several drafts to improve the debated law have been introduced and civil society groups have been invited to offer their suggestions. In the end, their alterations were all cast aside and a version more restrictive than any of the previous drafts was implemented, to national and international uproar. Amnesty International’s Deputy director described it as a “death sentence for NGOs”, as the very freedom to establish associations by notification, rather than permission, remains at stake, with harsher repercussions than ever before.
Last year, all civil organizations scrambled to complete their papers for registration before the 2nd September deadline. After finishing the paper work, all they can do is wait. Earlier, various tactics have been deployed, such as getting the NGOs to jump through hoops getting all the papers in order, just to leave them waiting in limbo. The papers could collect dust at the Ministry for years, waiting for a stamp of approval that would never come.
It is important to note that this law does not necessarily result in the shutdown of organizations, although this could also be the ultimate consequence. The difficulty of operating on the right side of the law and the drawn out process of registration are also results.
“The problem is not that the law is very complicated, but the timeline. A process that should be completed after three days, could take months,” the leader of a Syrian relief association explained to me, an association that mainly distributes blankets to impoverished families and offers primary education to Syrian refugee children. “We ourselves started the process during the military rule of the SCAF and completed it during Mursi. The security process has become very difficult, and if you do not have good connections, it would be very hard.” This security check is an additional strain for for non- Egyptian citizens involved in community work, even if the work is not political or controversial in nature.
In addition, you can add the general toll of the extensive and infamous Egyptian bureaucracy. At an open seminar at the University of Oslo in April professor Diane Singerman described the registration process of her own organization Tadamon, an initiative for increased awareness of urban planning: “Registering in accordance with a law that the NGOs do not know, with a ministry also not knowing exactly what the law says.”
The difficulty in obtaining a registration permit has several economical and operational consequences. Some organizations are unable to go through the process of registration. This can be because of their small size, limited funding or the nationality of the founders or managers. To solve this problem, small organizations seek protection and legal coverage from larger established organizations. This cooperation is not always flawless. Sometimes it amounts to such difficulties that they are not able to properly manage their work and shut down.
Second, it affects the funding, especially the funding coming from abroad. Foreign funding, if you believe some Egyptian media sources, is nothing more than a tool to destroy the country and bring chaos and havoc. In September 2014, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued an amendment penalizing receivers of foreign funding with a lifetime jail sentence. No funding is allowed coming from outside of Egypt, as this is thought to “undermine national interests”. In a cartoon published in the independent news site Mada Masr, drawer Andil displays a caricature of a rosy cheeked and smug president Sisi signing the law with money bags and tanks on his office desk: “Hihihi… Illegal for all, except for me!” The cartoon refers to the US aid flowing Egypt’s way, as Washington is supposedly taking strides to normalize the relationship with Egypt.
Cartoon explanation: President al-Sisi issues law allowing life sentences to be given to those receiving foreign funds. Sisi: “Hehehe… Except me!”
All of this leaves the NGOs between a rock and a hard place. What they need to decide is: Register and work under repressive governance. Not register and work illegally. Registering means the risk of closing if the approval is not granted. It also means putting up with a department that serves its own interests having access to the sensitive human rights issues the NGOs are sometimes involved in. Not registering means that organization members can be fined, jailed and the organization can be shut down without notice.
From the start of the 2011 revolution, the NGOs have been defamed in Egyptian media and painted as representatives of all horrors: Terrorists, foreign spies, American Trojan horses, placed to create sedition. This defamation can shift the public impression, even though many of the threatened NGOs are in fact operating legally; some are even registered with other governmental departments.
After Egypt’s succession of dictatorships, military rule, revolts and coups, two things remain the same. First, the fear for what civil society may achieve if left to play unmonitored. Second, how easy it is to blame the outside world for the country’s failures and the distrust of all things foreign. Foreign funding? Illegal. Foreign NGO founders? Inspect them. Foreign organization? Raid them.
In the conservative Egyptian society, an NGO working with a topic as controversial as homosexuality might be an easy target. The majority will not lament its demise. However, it should concern us that hundreds of NGOs are facing imminent closure and seizure of funds. This trend proves that the Egyptian regime of fear is alive and well, no different under al-Sisi than his predecessors.