The conviction in Egypt of 43 NGO workers this week for working illegally has turned the spotlight on an increasingly restrictive environment for NGOs, including those in the humanitarian sector.
Furthermore, the next couple of weeks are expected to see the approval of a new bill by Egypt’s upper house, the Shura Council, revising the laws covering NGOs - a revision that has been widely criticized by international and Egyptian human rights groups.
Egypt has up to 43,000 NGOs, according to the government.
The new bill, first proposed by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party and announced by the presidency on 29 May, exempts NGOs from taxes and customs (Article 11), but tightens government control of much of their activity, including funding and membership.
“This bill aims first and foremost to limit the few freedoms civil society organizations have,” Nehad Abul Qomsan, head of local NGO Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights, told IRIN. “It gives the government carte blanche to intervene in the work of NGOs in ways that stifle this work altogether.”
The new bill is designed to replace a 2002 law from the Hosni Mubarak era deemed restrictive by many of Egypt's NGOs.
The 2002 law was used in this week’s convictions of Egyptian and international NGO workers, alongside the 1937 penal code.
Many NGO workers had been hoping the new post-Arab Spring bill would ease some of the 2002 restrictions, notably on getting approval for foreign funding.
But the new bill reiterates (Article 13) this requirement, which in practice leaves NGOs vulnerable to long administrative delays.
Tarig Nour, the executive director of local NGO Tadamon, which works to promote the welfare of marginalized African refugees, was hoping this requirement would not be part of the new law.
“I have no problem with notifying the government about the funding my organization gets, but I have a problem with the time it takes for funding approval,” Nour said. “Most of the time approval takes a very long time, which weakens my credibility with donors.”
In 2010, Tadamon designed a programme to offer anti-avian influenza vaccines to African refugees, and the International Organization for Migration had agreed to fund it, but the government's funding approval took four months to come through. This meant that the programme was no longer viable because the winter, the peak of avian influenza infections, was already over.
A year later, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was unable to fund another Tadamon project to offer medical support to African refugees because of difficulties related to getting funding approvals.
“We were hoping the government would make things easier in the new law, not worse,” Nour said.
One of the key reforms in the bill is the creation of a Coordination Committee to supervise the work of NGOs - from registration to funding, internal laws, membership and type of activities.
The Committee replaces the 2002 law’s provision for the Ministry of Social Affairs (now the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs) to approve (or not) NGO funding. The committee is made up of eight members, including one from the Homeland Security Agency and one from the intelligence agency, but no one from the NGO community.
The proposed 74-article bill (Arabic) requires NGOs to get approval for fundraising appeals (Article 11).
The bill also denies NGOs the right to participate in joint activities with foreign organizations without notifying the Coordination Committee (Article 12).
In the strongest reaction to the draft law at the local level so far, 40 of Egypt's largest civil society organizations issued a joint statement on 30 May, describing the law as an attempt by Morsi's party to “suppress” civil society.
“This is a restrictive law,” Gamal Eid, whose NGO Arabic Network for Human Rights Information was one of the signatories of the statement, told IRIN. “The people who drafted this law had only one thing in mind: total control over civil society organizations.”
Another NGO, the Arab Organization for Human Rights, has said the new bill contradicts the spirit of the Egyptian revolution.
But supporters of the president say the reforms do not hinder freedoms. “The draft law widens the scope for the work of NGOs,” Bakinam Al Sharqawi, a Morsi aide told IRIN.
“If the Committee objects to anything in the work of the NGOs, it has to mention the objective reasons for doing this. I invite everybody to discuss this law calmly,” he added.
One of the requirements of the new draft law is for foreign NGOs to work within the framework of the needs of Egyptian society, public order and morals (Article 55).
“This can open the way for the prohibition of activities, any activities, if the government thinks they violate public order or morals,” said Gamal Abdel Gabir, secretary-general of Sudanese NGO The People of Sudan. “Our work is full of things that can easily be categorized as violating public order.”
The NGO offers support to Sudanese refugees living in Egypt. Gabir says whether the help he offers the Sudanese refugees can be considered a violation of public order or morals depends on the relationship Egypt has with the government in Khartoum.
“The same applies to other associations that offer help to refugees coming from countries, such as Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia,” Gabir said. “The government can easily close them down under the pretext that their activities violate public order.”
Under current laws, international NGOs need to make a formal request to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when planning an activity in Egypt, but according to Amnesty International the authorities do not respond, putting NGOs in an uncertain position.