First They Came for the Brotherhood . . . Egyptian Gov Seeks to Criminalize NGOs

Having banned the Muslim Brotherhood and exercised increased control of religious activities at mosques, the military-led regime in Egypt is turning its sights on all non-governmental associations. A newly-drafted “Law on Associations” sponsored by the Ministry of Social Solidarity threatens the very existence of civil society in Egypt.

In the words of a July 9 statement issued by 29 independent civil society organizations—among them, all of the country’s leading human rights groups—the proposed law “will criminalize the operation of NGOs and subordinate them to the security establishment, shutting down the public sphere in Egypt to all but regime supporters.”

This development supports the views of those political scientists and observers who see in the country not just a clash between military and Islamist forces but a new face of authoritarianism broader and deeper than the politics of religion.

The bill invests a “Coordinating Committee” of government officials—including two members of the security establishment—with broad authority to monitor and control the activities of NGOs by approving or rejecting their licensing and funding, disqualifying potential board members, annulling board resolutions, even dissolving entire associations by administrative decree pending a court order.

The bill prohibits NGOs from engaging in trade union activity, political activity—vaguely defined without distinguishing between public policy advocacy and support for particular candidates or political parties, and the even more amorphously defined activities that “threaten national unity or contravene the public order or morals.”

Under the proposed legislation, the operation of foreign international organizations in Egypt and the cooperation of domestic organizations with intergovernmental bodies such as the United Nations would be severely restricted. The NGO coalition statement points out that these provisions “will be used against any rights organization that seeks to acquire consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council, or with any organization that cooperates with the system of UN special rapporteurs.”

Although many of the infractions of the draft law could result from nothing more serious than clerical oversights, the text imposes harsh penalties of no less than one year in prison and a fine of at least EGP 100,000, or around $14,000. The Law on Associations is clearly inconsistent with Egypt’s international commitments to respect the human right of freedom of association as well as Article 75 of the constitution, which guarantees citizens the freedom of association.

This week there were calls to delay a vote on the legislation until after parliamentary elections. Human rights defenders are bracing for the worst. “Our time is coming,” one researcher told Human Rights Watch. “There will be a crackdown on NGOs, and we all expect to end up in prison soon. We know this is our fate, and we have accepted it.”

RD contributing editor Austin Dacey will be writing a series of posts and essays in the coming months as part of a joint project between The Immanent Frame and Religion Dispatches made possible by the generosity of the Luce Foundation. Click here to read posts on Egypt and secularism.