The noose is tightening around Egypt’s non-governmental organizations (NGOs). These Egyptian NGOs — essentially what we call “nonprofits” in the US – focus on everything from human rights to other important issues. They may soon lose their independence under an old law that the new Egyptian government is bringing back to life.
Come Nov. 10, important civil society organizations will be posed with a dilemma. That’s the deadline for NGOs to register under the notorious Law of Associations and attempt to work under repressive conditions that threatens their funding and governance.
The other option for NGOs is continue to work outside of the law and face the risk of arrest and detention.
Neither situation is acceptable for the future of Egypt and the fulfillment of the promise of the 2011 uprising. How can a free society truly exist if people don’t have the freedom to launch organizations independent of the government? Unfortunately, Egypt’s largest military ally — the United States government — is remaining on the sideline. Many other countries are too. Amnesty International is demanding that the silence end.
We are calling on the US government speak out to stop the Nov. 10 deadline for NGOs to register under the Law on Associations (Law 84 of 2002). We want the US government use its influence to ensure that the Egyptian government protects and upholds the right to freedom of association by reviewing the Law on Associations, the Penal Code, and draft legislation.
The Egyptian government has not hidden its intention to use the 2002 Law on Associations – passed under deposed President Hosni Mubarak to target civil society groups that serve to protect the legal, political, economic and human rights of the citizens. Egyptian “National Security” officers have called at least three NGO directors and told them that they will be shut down if they don’t register.
This past week, Egyptian security forces raided the house of a prominent human rights activist on allegations that she was communicating with “foreign parties” and “working against the interests of Egypt.” Amnesty International also has learned that other civil society leaders are at risk for being arrested following the Nov. 10 deadline.
In the last few weeks, the authorities have tightened the noose on civil society. New restrictions introduced into the Penal Code prohibit individuals or groups from receiving money or materials with the intention to commit acts that would harm the ‘national interest,’ Egypt’s ‘independence or unity or territorial integrity,’ or ‘disturb public security and safety.’ NGO officials said this will cut off Egyptian NGOs from important funding sources both domestic and international.
But as the government demands NGOs comply with the law, it is even refusing to register some organizations on “national security” grounds. And proposed new legislation would give the authorities even more sweeping new powers over NGOs’ registration, activities and funding. While the legislation is ostensibly aimed at cutting off funding for armed groups, in practice it is likely to be used to restrict international funding for human rights organizations.
All of this regulation comes with the threat of criminal charges, jail and detention for NGO officials and crippling legal fines that could silence the agencies.
The mood of the NGO officials caught up in this crisis is somber; the sensation is disorienting. How could it be that a law designed by then-President Mubarak to muzzle civil society is being resurrected by his successors to target the very people that helped the nation rise up against him? How, after the hope of Tahrir Square, can the nation be back in a situation where old laws are used in new draconian ways?
It all adds up to a crisis that for Egyptian NGOs would be the final blow to their independence. If this crackdown goes ahead, it will shut down Egypt’s 30-year old human rights community at the time when it is needed the most.
If the United States government stands silent in such a crisis, it will be our shame as citizens and residents of this country. But ultimately, the Egyptians who just three years ago stood in Tahrir Square will carry all the loss.