The draft of the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) law, which was initially approved by parliament a few days ago, cannot be read without linking it with the historical, political, and social contexts surrounding it. These contexts can explain the wide-spread debate triggered by the law, and the conflict between a parliament that insists on passing its legal suggestion regardless of the NGOs’ acceptance or refusal, and NGOs that are not ready to accept it, refusing the entire package.
Historically, liberating civil society and setting it free of the state’s grip has always been one of the major demands of the reformist powers in the past two decades. These powers succeeded in grabbing a significant constitutional gain represented in Article 75 of the Egyptian Constitution, which stipulates that the establishment of NGOs is based on notification, that it is prohibited from dissolving them unless through the judiciary, and that administrative agencies have no right to interfere in the affairs of NGOs that are legally registered.
Nevertheless, over the years following the 25 January Revolution and the issuance of the 2014 Egyptian Constitution, Egyptian NGOs have failed to adopt a unified draft for a new civil society law and to hold serious talks with the state to reach a new legislation manifesting the spirit of the constitutional text and fulfilling the hopes of Egypt’s civil society. In the same context, the successive governments wasted time in conducting draft laws without presenting them to the legislative authority.
There have been political players and voices in the media adopting a discourse that condemns some NGOs. Affected by this discourse, Egyptian citizens have become uncertain about the benefit of these organisations and doubtful about the funding sources of some of them, in addition to the correlation between the funding sources and the incidents Egypt has witnessed over the last six years. As a direct result of the hardline discourse and the elitism of NGO-work, those organisations have not succeeded in gaining strong popular support to push the parliament to adopt a more liberal legislative vision than the one recently adopted.
NGOs themselves are responsible for part of the crisis because they have not been able to unite behind one vision.
Within these contexts, it is wise to look at the present draft law as a fact that should be dealt with. I do not think that statements of refusal and begging for foreign support can change a lot in the conviction of the parliament that bypassed the government and insisted on passing its draft law. This means, that we, as civil society, should start thinking about what guarantees we can obtain in light of this law. This could be done through an organised and clear dialogue, and choosing clear demands throughout the phases of the law’s revision at the State Council and the preparation of the bylaws.
Given that the draft law is with the State Council now, we can determine points we need to optimise and push for the provision of guarantees to control the formulation of the bylaws. Maybe the most prominent of these points is stating the right of forming organisations by only notification and only allowing the judiciary to dissolve NGOs. We could add to that abiding by a timeline in granting or declining requests of foreign funding, in addition to the organisations’ right to resort to courts in order to object to the decisions of the regulatory agencies.
In this regard, we should think about guarantees to accelerate the litigation process and emphasise the need for the completion of the final ruling at a pace that matches the type of work done by civil society organisations. This shall guarantee the right of organisation to easily resort to courts, contrary to the mazes they had to go through under the provisions of Law 84 of 2002.
Of the points that I see important in the draft law—despite my objections to them—is establishing an agency to regulate the work of foreign organisations in Egypt. From my point of view, this agency would be much better than the current bureaucratic restrictions established by Law 84 of 2002. The current law obliges organisations to wait for years in the halls of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Solidarity to obtain work permits—which they mostly do not even get. Yet, the current draft law determines that the agency would grant this permit based on a mechanism that is unaffiliated to the Ministry of Solidarity, which—if practiced correctly—would rid the suffering of foreign institutions and those who seek funding.
Moreover, the philosophy of establishing regulatory agencies affiliated to the cabinet has been a growing trend in Egypt. There is no harm in adopting the same philosophy for civil society.
Among the other important points that must be dealt with in a positive manner are the provisions related to raising the bar for transparency in terms of the operations and funding of civil society organisations. This is a point which should be more important to NGOs than the parliament.
The proposed draft law is not ideal. It may not even be the best we could get now. It contains articles that we see as restrictions that do not match the role of civil society organisations. But we should not just abandon the ship because part of it is wrecked. We must work harder and unite behind clear demands to save what could be saved while the law is reviewed by the State Council and while its bylaws are being penned.
Even after the promulgation of the law and its bylaws, we must work under it and use the legal procedures it provides to challenge what we see as violations.
Moreover, Egyptian civil society is—more than ever—urged to unite and go beyond categorisation and exchanging accusations. Society must be an idol to transparency, and should call for the change to approach the real burdens of Egyptians, as well as uphold the value of dialogue and the importance of negotiation. Eventually, we will reach the law that meets our ambitions. Then, we will find the support that would make any legislative or executive power think twice before adopting laws that limit the freedom of civil work.