Human rights groups fear impact of draft Egypt law restricting their work

Aid agencies in Egypt helped refugees from Libya during the unrest there in 2011.

Egypt's parliament is close to passing a law that campaigners say will severely restrict the activity of human rights groups and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and which is seen as a serious betrayal of the goals of the 2011 uprising that ousted the former dictator Hosni Mubarak.

According to Heba Morayef, the Egypt director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), the draft law, if passed unchanged, will "make it almost impossible for international human rights organisations to operate in Egypt".

As it stands, the law – which has been condemned by both the UN and the EU, and which might be passed as early as next week – could force international NGOs to seek permission for almost every aspect of every project. Their work would need to be authorised by a new committee that could veto any projects it believed would work against Egypt's national unity, public morals, and development goals – loose concepts that campaigners fear will allow the authorities to clamp down on any project that questions the activity of Egypt's Islamist-led government.

"It has very vague language that gives the government discretion to halt any activities that it doesn't agree with substantively," said Morayef, who is the country's highest-profile rights campaigner.

"I can fully imagine them saying that going forward, if you want to work on women's rights, then that's not a priority in Egypt. Don't work on women's rights." Egypt's president, Mohamed Morsi, and most of the country's current parliamentarians are affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood, which recently condemned moves to grant basic rights to women.

In a situation that many feel will be exacerbated by the new legislation, the government has already tried to restrict funding to women's rights groups such as the New Woman Foundation, who in turn have been forced to cut salaries and lose staff.

Campaigners also criticised the way the law gives state security officials a leading role in the authorisation process. "It is a back door for the security apparatus to restrict the activities of the NGOs – by not approving funds for NGOs that are going to monitor elections or the situation of human rights or torture," said Mohamed Zaree, Egypt programme director at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

Morayef agreed: "The idea of giving MI6 or the CIA the right to register NGOs in the UK and the US would be ludicrous."

Even if the committee did not reject an NGO's activity outright, there are concerns it could still drastically slow their work through bureaucracy. "The law doesn't say that you're going to be shot down immediately," said Gasser Abdel-Razek, associate director at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. "But … it basically means that you really waste a lot of your resources in keeping yourself alive, rather than in contributing to whatever you set out to do."

International groups are not the only ones under threat. Among many other restrictions, local groups would need authorisation to receive any funding from foreign sources. This would particularly restrict Egyptian human rights NGOs, whose work – according to UN representatives – is almost entirely funded by overseas grants.

"If you look back during the last 10 years in Egypt and other Arab countries, the human rights organisations, where have their funds come from?" asks Marwan Abi Samra, the head of democratic governance for the UN in Egypt. "Let's say 90% has come from foreign sources. This means that [the law] will have a very bad impact on human rights organisations."

Samra added: "It is not what we expect after a revolution in Egypt, and most importantly, many of these issues are in total contradiction with international law.

"This is definitely a betrayal of the revolution," said Zaree. "When I participated in Tahrir Square, the demands of the revolution were bread and freedom and social justice. Not bread and freedom and restricting the work of NGOs."

The activity of NGOs has long been restricted in Egypt. Under Mubarak, the government would drag out the registration of individual NGOs over several years – a process that forced the groups to tread especially carefully, in order to avoid their applications being rejected.

Under the military dictatorship that followed Mubarak, NGO repression became more explicit, as 43 NGO staffers were arrested, ostensibly for receiving "illegal" foreign funds. The new law promises more of the same.

While many Egyptians agree that the 2011 uprising generally brought them greater freedoms, the putative NGO law is also one of several recent developments that suggest that Egypt's Islamist-led government is seeking to turn the clock back.

This week, the TV satirist Bassem Youssef was detained and questioned for insulting the president on his politics-themed show – along with a prominent stand-up comedian, and more than 20 opposition activists, lawyers and politicians. Parliament is also rushing through legislation that would restrict the right to protest.

The Egyptian government's director for NGO affairs, Osama Shaltout, did not respond to requests for comment.



Popular posts from this blog

How a cyber attack hampered Hong Kong protesters

‘Not Hospital, Al-Shifa is Hamas Hideout & HQ in Gaza’: Israel Releases ‘Terrorists’ Confessions’ | Exclusive

Former FARC guerrilla, Colombian cop pose naked together to promote peace deal