Under mounting domestic and international pressure, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government withdrew the draconian 2017 law governing nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and replaced it with Law 149 of 2019. The government issued the implementing regulations (Prime Minister’s Decree 104 of 2021) for this law in January 2021. The government, meanwhile, engaged extensively in national and international campaigns branding the 2019 law as a progressive legal framework that “removes all the obstacles” facing nongovernmental groups.
However, there has not been any policy change or the slightest shift in how the government and its security agencies have been dealing with independent groups and nongovernmental organizations, which is to treat them mainly as a threat and not an asset. Dozens of Egypt’s prominent human rights defenders remain detained or under years-long travel bans.
The new law is an attempt by the government to circumvent international pressure and appear to be responding to criticism, when in fact it does not ease restrictions on freedom of association in the least. In addition to constraining existing groups, it will likely deter Egyptians from initiating civil society efforts, knowing the burdens and risks that entails. The law makes it clear that the government of President al-Sisi is determined to throttle any genuine manifestations of civil society.
The law and its implementing regulations ensure pervasive and routine government and security intervention in and surveillance of the work of independent groups. All organizations must be registered under the 2019 law by January 2022. Enforcement of the law and its regulations could bring about the demise of the few remaining independent organizations in the country or at a minimum bring their work to a halt. The new law will impact not just human rights organizations but others as well, such as environmental and development groups and international donor organizations.
The following questions and answers respond to the government’s misinformation and address the main freedom of association issues around the 2019 law and its consequences for independent groups in Egypt.
Does the new 2019 NGO law facilitate the process of registering an organization?
No. The government claims people can work independently by simply notifying the government about their activity. In fact, the law prohibits “civic work” (defined as any nonprofit work aiming at developing the society) without prior registration and government permission. The unduly complicated and burdensome registration process is not final until the Social Solidarity Ministry issues a decision in the ministry’s website approving the group’s registration and publishing the organizations’ internal regulations.
The convoluted registration process spelled out in the law requires an organization to provide the ministry with an unreasonably lengthy and complex set of documents and reports, in most cases amounting to hundreds of pages, clearly intended to negate the essence of the right to freedom of association and the ability to work without prior government permission.
The law, for instance, requires existing associations to submit detailed reports about all their past activities, the geographic and thematic areas where they have worked, their funding sources, and any contracts or agreements of cooperation with any other organizations, in addition to paying a fee of 5,000 Egyptian pounds (US$320) and renting or owning an “appropriate” multi-room office.
Among the documents needed for registration are documents concerning the goals of the association, the nature of its activity and mission, and methods of achieving them; financial statements and audits and an annual budget; rules for calling and conducting board meetings; rules of the different departments of the association; the procedures and rules for appointing members and volunteers; police confirmation that the co-founders have no criminal records; legal residence permits for non-Egyptian board members; all internal regulations of the association; and a list of all employees and volunteers. The authorities can use the failure to submit any required document as a pretext to reject a group’s registration within 60 days. A group can appeal a rejection before the administrative court, a process that can take years. As mentioned, an organization cannot be fully registered until the Social Solidarity Ministry publishes a decision to that effect in the ministry’s website. Additionally, an organization will not be able to open a bank account for its activities without a letter from the ministry confirming its registration. Given past and current abusive government practices, and the al-Sisi government’s intense crackdown on NGOs, the ministry will likely use these bureaucratic hurdles to prevent critical organizations or those labeled by security agencies as “threats” from registering.
Which organizations are required to register?
All existing as well as new organizations, foreign or local, must register. The requirement applies to all organizations that carry out civic work even if they are already registered under previous NGO laws or under other laws. Over the past two decades, many organizations were registered as law firms, think tanks, and consultancy companies to avoid the highly restrictive laws governing organizations. This is no longer possible under the 2019 law.
Civic work is defined in the 2019 law as “any nonprofit work aiming at developing the society.” Such a broad definition is meant to prohibit any independent civic engagement or activity without government permission and supervision. Moreover, the law requires that all authorities, including security agencies, identify and report any entity carrying out activities without being registered. This, in effect, ensures security sector control over all civic space in Egypt.
What happens to organizations that are not registered or denied registration? Is there any way they can still operate or provide consultancy services?
No. The 2019 law requires all organizations, associations, or groups that carry out “civic work” to register under the new law by January 2022, one year from the date the implementing regulations were issued on January 11, 2021. The law prohibits any other government entity, apart from the Social Solidarity Ministry, from issuing permission to carry out civic activity, stating that any such permission would be “null and void.” The law allows the government to forcibly close down any organization that works without a registration permit and freeze its assets. The administrative court can order its dissolution. Staff members can face prosecution and hefty fines, and even prison, if they are prosecuted under additional laws restricting freedom of asssociation.
What is expected to happen from now until January 2022?
Unless international pressure compels the government to revise the law and its repressive policies, organizations not registered by January 2022 will be subject to dissolution and asset freezes, exposing their staffs to heightened government repression, including possible indefinite arbitrary detention and criminal prosecution.
What does registration entitle an organization to do?
It can carry out “civic work” but only under heavy government supervision. It has to obtain permission for many activities that fall within the day-to-day work of nongovernment groups, as explained below.
What are the major provisions in the 2019 law and implementing regulations that restrict the work of nongovernmental groups?
The 2019 law requires prior government approval for a wide range of ordinary activities and prohibits others altogether.
Activities prohibited without prior government approval:
The law prohibits organizations from conducting any surveys or field research without prior government approval. The government has to approve studies or publications before they are released.
The law prohibits cooperation with any “foreign entity inside or outside” the country, meaning that Egyptian organizations cannot hire, engage, consult, or cooperate with foreign volunteers or staff of foreign organizations without Social Solidarity Ministry approval.
The law prohibits work in border areas, to be designated by the Prime Minister, without prior government approval. In other laws, such as Presidential Decree 444 of 2014, the government applied a very broad definitation for border areas that arbitrarily restricts access to marginalized communities in those areas such as in Nubia, in south Egypt.
The law prohibits sending money to individuals or entities abroad, or opening branches or offices outside Egypt without the social solidarity minister’s approval.
Completely prohibited activities:
Some activities are completely banned, such as “political” work. The law and its implementing regulations do not define what is meant by political work. The government can use this prohibition to punish organizations that address issues of public policy, elections, or other work related to political and civil rights.
The law prohibits associations from carrying out any activity the authorities deem to be “outside of its mandated goals.”
The law prohibits work that allegedly undermines vague, broadly worded terms such as national security, public order, or public morals. Neither the law nor its implementing regulations define these terms, which Egyptian authorities have routinely used to criminalize activities that fall within protected rights in the Egyptian constitution and international law, such as peaceful protests, consensual sexual conduct, and artistic activity.
What are the penalties for violating these provisions?
The 2019 law subjects associations to hefty fines of up to one million Egyptian pounds ($64,000), suspension for one year, closure, dissolution, and asset freezes. Under other laws, such as certain penal code provisions, staff members could face criminal prosecution. Authorities have subjected dozens of leading human rights defenders to such prosections, as explained below.
Can an organization receive foreign funds or otherwise freely raise funds for its activities?
The law imposes severe restrictions on local and foreign funding. Associations need advance government approval to launch donation campaigns, such as via text messages or a website, or organize fundraising parties or charity events. Each of these donation collection modes has its own rather complicated rules detailed in the law’s implementing regulations .
As for foreign funding, the implementing regulations require all associations to report in detail all funding contracts with entities or individuals outside Egypt, including Egyptians living abroad, to the Social Solidarity Ministry within 30 days of receiving the funds. The ministry reviews the documents submitted and makes a decision approving or disapproving the grant within 60 days after “consulting with relevant authorities.” In practice, security and intelligence agencies are the key “relevant authorities” in making such decisions. If no objection is made within 60 days the fund is considered approved.
When funding is not approved, the association has to return it to the funding entity within five days, which effectively negates any right to appeal such decisions even if theoretically possible.
Associations can receive funds from Egyptian individuals or entities or foreign organizations that have successfully obtained permission to work in Egypt. Even in those cases, associations are required to notify the ministry within three months and submit bi-annual narrative reports. Egyptian organizations rely a lot on foreign funding partly because authorities can undermine a business or otherwise intimidate and harass businessmen and women and companies that fund critical work.
How can a foreign (international) organization work in Egypt?
Foreign organizations also have to comply with the 2019 law, and in fact face greater restrictions. They must obtain Foreign Ministry approval that is valid only for a certain activity, in a certain geographic area and for a specified time, and must be renewed for any additional activity. Foreign nationals can be members of local organizations only if they have a valid Egyptian residence permit and after government approval. This effectively bars foreign nationals residing outside Egypt from participating in or supporting any civic activity inside Egypt.
What about independent campaigns not necessarily tied to an organization? Can a group of people carry out a campaign without registration?
No. The 2019 law defines civil society work as “any nonprofit work aiming at developing the society.” No such work is allowed without registration under the 2019 law. The implementing regulations state that, outside of an association, individuals cannot carry out any civic initiative, campaign, or work without prior government permission, which requires, among other things, opening a specific bank account for the activity. The 2019 law is a clear deterrent for Egyptians wishing to engage in civic campaigns and activities.
Is it true that NGO workers would no longer face criminal prosecution or imprisonment for civic activities after the 2019 law comes into force?
No. This is another misleading spin by the government. Using other laws (see below) the Egyptian authorities remain able to prosecute and courts can convict and imprison human rights defenders for their work, as they have been doing. Some have even been sent to prison for cooperating with United Nations human rights bodies.
Some of those imprisoned have been staff members of leading human rights organizations. In November 2020, National Security Agency officers arrested three leaders of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) for allegedly operating without permission. Following international pressure, the authorities released them in early December but have not dropped the charges, including alleged terrorism-related offenses, and a terrorism court ordered their personal assets frozen.
The Egyptian government has repeatedly ignored calls by UN experts and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to release human rights defenders, including the following:
Ibrahim Metwally, the founder and chair of the League for the Families of the Disappeared, was arrested at the Cairo airport in 2017 as he awaited departure to Geneva where he had been invited to meet with the UN Working Committee on Enforced Disappearances. He remains detained without trial.
Ibrahim Ezz El-Din, a researcher with the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), and Mohamed el-Baqer, the director of the Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms, remain detained since June and September 2019 in reprisal for their work.
Ezzat Ghoniem, director of the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms, and Hoda Abdel Moniem, his colleague and a former board member of the governmental National Council for Human Rights, have been detained without trial since 2018.
Patrick Zaki, gender rights researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, has been detained without trial since February 2020.
These are only a few of the dozens of Egyptian activists in arbitrary detention.
How else have Egyptian authorities hindered or interfered with the work of associations?
The 2019 associations law facilitates active surveillance.The implementing regulations require the Social Solidarity Ministry to maintain an electronic database including details on all employees, volunteers, and funders, and “any other documents the minister requires” for all nongovernmental organizations in the country under the pretext of “digitalization.” The regulations state that this is to facilitate “instant exchange” of such information between the ministry and “relevant authorities.” This amounts to ongoing surveillance by the ministry and security agencies.
Associations are required to update such information monthly, including even slight changes such as new volunteers.
Another element of active surveillance under the law is that the ministry’s staff can carry out unannounced inspections of an organization’s files and activities.
Apart from the 2019 law and its implementing regulations, are there other Egyptian laws that impact independent organizations, freedom of association, and the work of associations?
Yes. In its efforts to “whitewash” its human rights violations, the Egyptian government advertises the 2019 law as a “turning point.” However, there can be no “new beginnings” or “turning points” without releasing the hundreds of unjustly imprisoned civil society and political activists, who are the real drive of any civic engagement, and without rigorously revising state policies and laws that are part-and-parcel of the web of legal restrictions the authorities use to crack down on dissent, independent organizations, and freedom of association. These include, but not are limited to, several provisions of the penal code, the 2015 counterterrorism law, the 2013 law criminalizing peaceful assembly, and abusive trade union laws that restrict the right to organize and protest. Seven UN special procedures mandate holders said in February 2020 they “view the totality of these legislative enactments, and their inter-related and cumulative effects, as having collective and corrosive effects on the promotion and protection of human rights.”
In 2014, President al-Sisi decreed an amendment to the penal code that provides for life imprisonment for members of any entity, group, or organization that receives foreign funds to carry out activities that allegedly would violate overbroad and vague terms such as “undermine the country’s independence.” Many Egyptian organizations have had to close or scale down their operations fearing prosecution under this law if they accepted foreign funds. Since 2014, the government has shut down hundreds of organizations, and likely up to several thousands, mostly charity groups, under other vague and oppressive laws. Many leading human rights defenders live now in self-exile, fearing arrest if they return to their country, and others have gone underground.
How else have these other laws been used to undermine the work of civic organizations?
The authorities have used these laws to effectively criminalize and punish many aspects of the rights to freedom of association and expression, particularly human rights work.
In Case 173 of 2011, known as the foreign funding case, over 40 staff members of several international organizations were sentenced to prison in 2013. It was not until 2018 that another court annulled their sentences. Tellingly, these criminal charges were not based on the existing NGO law but on the penal code. The second part of Case 173, in which dozens of leading Egyptian organizations and human rights defenders continue to face prosecution for receiving foreign funds, is based on security allegations that negate the essence of freedom of association. The prosecutions and attacks against human rights defenders and independent activists include travel bans and asset freezes now in their sixth year and additions to the “terrorist list” in arbitrary proceedings.
Another example of the Egyptian authorities’ tactics of intimidation and reprisal against independent groups and activists was the administrative prosecution that lasted from 2016 to 2019 against two judges who had cooperated with the United Group, a law firm, to draft an anti-torture law. In another incident in August 2020, a court handed down a 15-year prison sentence in absentia against Bahey Eldin Hassan, founder and director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, one of the oldest and most respected Egyptian groups, on charges of “publishing false news” and “insulting the judiciary” following a tweet.
The authorities use this web of abusive laws and policies to stifle NGO activity and impose a chilling effect on freedoms of association and expression. Some human rights defenders faced reprisals outside of any legal process, as happened to prominent lawyer Gamal Eid, the director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, who was twice physically assaulted in 2019, apparently by security forces.
Does the 2019 law violate international law and Egypt’s Constitution?
Yes, severely. The 2019 law and its implementing regulations practically reverses the constitution’s article 75, which states, “All citizens shall have the right to form non-governmental associations and foundations on a democratic basis, which shall acquire legal personality upon notification. Such associations and foundations shall have the right to practice their activities freely, and administrative agencies may not interfere in their affairs or dissolve them, or dissolve their boards of directors or boards of trustees save by a court judgment.”
Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and article 10 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, both of which Egypt has ratified, protect the right to freedom of association. Restrictions are only permissible through regulations “prescribed by law and that are necessary in a democratic society,” and which should respond to a pressing public need and reflect basic democratic values of pluralism and tolerance. “Necessary” restrictions must also be proportionate – that is, carefully balanced against the specific reason for imposing the restriction and not discriminatory, including on the grounds of national origin, political opinion, or belief. Moreover, no restriction should undermine the essence of the right to freedom of association itself, as the totality of restrictions in Egypt’s 2019 associations law does.