x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

New requirement to register rattles Egyptian NGOs

If Egypt’s rights organisations are weakened, it constitutes a victory for those forces seeking to destabilise the security situation, writes HA Hellyer

The NGO sector has been a thorn in the side of Egyptian governments for the past decade. Asmaa Waguih / Reuters
The NGO sector has been a thorn in the side of Egyptian governments for the past decade. Asmaa Waguih / Reuters

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are the lifeblood of thriving civil sectors in many democratic societies. However, last month, almost 30 of the best-known NGOs in Egypt sounded the alarm over a development that could lead to restrictions in the way they operate. It is a change that could see a critical part of Egypt’s social fabric diminish in capacity at a time when it’s needed more than ever.

Last month, the ministry of social solidarity published an announcement in the main state newspaper indicating that all groups and bodies involved in activities that could be considered relevant to the work of NGOs were obliged to register as NGOs. Those that did not do so would be subject to legal investigation. Against the context of the past few years, many NGOs interpreted that not as a simple legal procedure but as a move that might put their continued activity in peril.

The NGO sector, it ought to be noted, has been a thorn in the side of Egyptian governments for the past decade. Under Hosni Mubarak, many of them were critical of what they saw as a lack of political freedoms and violations of human rights.

When Mubarak faced pressure to reform in 2011, culminating in the January 25 revolution, prominent members of the NGO community were at the forefront of the protests that were followed by his departure. During the different administrations that followed – whether under Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Mohammed Morsi, Adly Mansour or, now, Abdel Fattah El Sisi – many organisations in the NGO sector have remained focused on drawing attention to the infringements of human rights.

None of those administrations viewed the NGO sector as one that needs to be strengthened and protected – particularly the rights organisations that exist primarily to shed light on where the state has fallen short of its obligations and responsibilities to its citizens, with sometimes deadly consequences.

The “war on terror” narrative in Egypt, in place since the removal from office of Mr Morsi a year ago, has seen an emphasis on security measures to the near exclusion of other considerations. With that in mind, human rights organisations have become even more important – but their collective job has become more difficult.

For many years now, NGOs have been subjected to a restrictive legal regime that dates back to the Mubarak era. It remains quite difficult for them to register and undertake the activities that NGOs normally carry out in other countries. For this reason, many NGOs have registered as other types of legal entities, such as research companies or law firms.

They have engaged with the institutions of state for many years – at extremely senior levels – and have not been turned away on the basis that they aren’t registered as NGOs. But now, they are essentially being provided with an ultimatum to register in this capacity, which could cripple their ability to function.

Since 2011, Egypt’s different governments have tried to create a new NGO law – and rights groups have criticised successive drafts as being more obstructive to their work than the existing law.

Some organisations fear that one of the few sectors left to hold the state to account will be hampered. The past year has already seen a number of legal measures that are ostensibly meant to improve state security but could have a chilling effect on civil society. The protest law of 2013 – which not only severely restricts the right to protest but applies what the European Union among others has describe as disproportionately harsh penalties – is one prominent example.

Political party officials have privately admitted that their effectiveness has been weakened due to the emphasis on security above all else. Egypt needs an accountability mechanism, but the fear is that whatever parliament emerges after elections late this year will be fragmented and unable to provide strong checks and balances on other institutions of state.

Egypt is not in the midst of civil war and, thankfully, it is not subject to the same sort of turmoil witnessed in other countries in the region. But it does have a security problem, as other countries have had at different points in their history.

It is precisely at times when societies are challenged in that fashion that it becomes even more necessary for rights groups to do the job that only they can do: lift a mirror to the institutions of power and remind them what they are supposed to be fighting for.

If Egypt’s rights organisations are weakened, it constitutes a victory for those forces seeking to destabilise the security situation.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer