Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Plight of NGOs in Egypt

BY William Fisher

Non-governmental organizations in Egypt are being strangled by a law severely restricting their activities and by the “extra-legal role” of the country’s Security Services, a new report from Human Rights Watch charges.

“Civil society groups in Egypt face severe restrictions under the law governing nongovernmental organizations. In addition, the country’s security services
scrutinize and harass civil society activists even though the law does not
accord them any such powers”, an HRW spokesman said.

The 45-page report, “Margins of Repression: State Limits on Nongovernmental
Organization Activism,” concludes that “the most serious barrier to meaningful freedom of association in Egypt is the extra-legal role of the security services”.

The report documents numerous cases where the security services rejected NGO registrations, decided who could serve on NGO boards of directors, harassed NGO activists, and interfered with donations reaching the groups.

It says that while the current law, which went into effect in 2003, is an improvement over the previous law, “its provisions — and the broad and arbitrary way it is applied — violate Egypt’s international legal obligations to uphold freedom of association. The law prohibits political and union-related activity, and allows the authorities to dissolve organizations by administrative order. It continues a host of intrusive administrative practices that stunt organizing by civil society groups, and provide ample means for state interference in their affairs.”

“There is a difference between ensuring that civil society groups are accountable to the public and enhancing the state’s power to police and stifle the work of these groups,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Egypt’s laws and practices fall squarely in the latter category.”

Human Rights Watch called on the government to amend Law 84/2002 to make NGO registration voluntary and abolish penalties for participating in unregistered
NGOs. The authorities should also remove all restrictions on peaceful activities
that amount to the exercise of freedom of expression, freedom of association,
and freedom to participate in public life.

It said the government should:

Amend the law to ensure that all non-profit groups formed for any legal purpose
are allowed to acquire legal personality by making registration and membership of
NGOs entirely voluntary, abolishing penalties for participation in unregistered NGOs; and removing restrictions on the ability to affiliate with other NGOs, whether domestic or foreign.

Remove all restrictions on peaceful activities that amount to the exercise of internationally-recognized human rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom to participate in public life.

Ensure that any involuntary dissolution of an NGO takes place only by judicial order, and only as a result of the most egregious violations by removing the administrative authority’s power to dissolve an NGO.

Permit receipt of donations or transfers from foreign donors, as long as all foreign exchange and customs laws are satisfied.

Allow NGOs to work in the thematic and geographical areas of their choosing.

Abolish the requirement that NGOs seek permission from the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs (MISA) for working in more than one field of activity or governorate.

Create a reporting system that is less complex, intrusive and burdensome, and abolish provisions that inappropriately prescribe internal governance mechanisms.

“Government regulations should help citizens to form groups, raise money, and
carry out needed work,” Stork said. “If people cannot form civil society
organizations and run them without heavy state interference, the chances of
developing a functioning democracy will shrink.”

The Egyptian government has no legitimate interest in choosing who can sit on
a board of directors, approving invitations to conferences, or reviewing minutes
of meetings and deciding how often executive committees can meet, Human Rights Watch said.

In an earlier report, HRW charges that the Egyptian Government is using national security to stifle dissent.

It says the Egyptian government has detained hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members solely for exercising their rights to freedom of speech, association and assembly. “The Egyptian government should not use public security as a pretext to punish people for peacefully trying to exercise their basic rights,” Stork said.

The Muslim Brotherhood, a banned but tolerated group, staged large demonstrations in Egyptian cities in early May calling for political reform. At least 800 members were arrested, and more than 300 are still in custody, most without charge. In a letter sent to President Hosni Mubarak, Human Rights Watch called on the government to release the detainees without delay.

Mahmoud `Izzat, secretary-general of the organization, and Dr. `Issam al-Irian, a prominent activist, are among scores who are being investigated on charges of belonging to an illegal organization, possession of publications and spreading propaganda of a nature to disturb public security, and promoting the use of force to breach the Constitution. Lawyers for the men say the last charge, based on allegations that they urged demonstrators to attack the police, are groundless but allow the prosecutor to refer the cases to a military court under the country’s counterterrorism laws.

“The Egyptian government should not use public security as a pretext to punish people for peacefully trying to exercise their basic rights,” Stork said, adding, “After six weeks of investigations, the government has not shown that a crime has been committed.”

HRW said that, criminal law should not be used as a pretext to detain persons exercising their peaceful rights to expression, association and assembly”.

“President Mubarak should use this opportunity to end the practice of invoking national security to stifle peaceful dissent,” Stork said.

The new report comes at a time when Mubarak has taken limited steps to open the political process by amending the constitution to allow multi-party elections for president for the first time. However, many critics say the new election law is a sham that makes it virtually impossible for political parties to win approval for their candidates.

Mubarak has ruled Egypt for 24 years, being “reelected” five times in one-person
referenda. He has not publicly declared his candidacy for a sixth term, but is widely expected to run.

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