Egypt’s Morsi Continues Pursuit of New Civil Society Restrictions
By: Catherine Shea, Guest Blogger
Early this month, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that the law governing the election of the Shura Council, the upper house of parliament, was unconstitutional, further weakening the legitimacy of the legislature nearly a year after the more powerful lower house was dissolved by court order. Nevertheless, the administration of President Mohamed Morsi is pressing ahead with plans for the Shura Council to adopt controversial new legislation that would restrict the activities of civil society organizations (CSOs) in the country. The flaws of the old law were underscored on June 4, when a criminal court convicted dozens of foreign and Egyptian CSO activists on trumped-up charges and permanently closed their organizations. But the latest draft of the new bill offers little hope that conditions for civil society would improve if it were enacted.
On May 29, Morsi sent the draft Law on Civil Work Organizations to the Shura Council for consideration. The bill is intended to replace the Law on Associations and Foundations (Law 84 of 2002), which currently governs the operations of many CSOs in Egypt. The Shura Council’s Committee on Human Resources Development and Local Administration agreed in principle to the draft and referred it to the council’s General Assembly on June 5; the full council in turn agreed in principle on amendments to the bill on June 17 and will return it to the committee for further review.
The U.S. State Department expressed concerns about the draft, stating that “while some improvements were made from earlier drafts … the draft law still imposes significant government controls and restrictions on the activities and funding of civic groups, which appear contrary to the right of freedom of association enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a party.” The European Union also issued a statement expressing concerns about the law, as have numerous international and Egyptian CSOs.
Although the Morsi administration claimed that the May 29 draft differed substantially from earlier versions that were criticized by both Egyptian CSOs and the international community, key provisions of the bill remain unchanged. Indeed, nearly every draft circulated since January 2013—whether developed by the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs, the ruling Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Shura Council, or the Office of the Presidency—has included a core group of provisions that would significantly constrain Egyptian civil society. Key governing institutions, as well as the FJP, appear to be converging around these provisions, suggesting that they may not be open to revising them. The provisions include (with reference to the presidency’s draft):
- Significant curbs on operations of foreign organizations. A powerful new “Coordination Committee”—made up of four representatives from the ministries or agencies selected by the minister of insurance and social affairs, and four representatives of CSOs—will decide on all matters related to foreign funding and foreign organizations operating in Egypt [Art. 53].
- Foreign CSOs may not conduct any operations or activities in Egypt without approval from the Coordination Committee [Arts. 56–57]. Even if the committee permits a foreign CSO to operate, it has broad authority to limit the group’s activities or funding [Art. 62].
- Foreign CSOs that conduct “partisan activities that are practiced by political parties or that infringe national sovereignty” may not be licensed to operate in Egypt [Art. 59].
- Restrictions on the ability of Egyptian CSOs to receive or provide international funding. Egyptian CSOs are prohibited from receiving or providing international funding without a permit from the Coordination Committee [Art. 63].
- Limits on the purposes and activities of associations and foundations. In the presidency’s May 29 draft, associations are permitted to work in “all social care, relief, and development fields, and to enlighten the society in all cultural, religious, scientific, intellectual, sportive, political, and human rights aspects, and all to achieve the interests of the society” [Art. 10]. The draft added a new limitation on organizational purposes, creating a category of “central organizations,” which must have at least 100 members to form [Art. 1(6)]. Only central organizations have the explicit right to participate in public life and public affairs. This can be interpreted to prohibit other CSOs from carrying out activities such as advocacy on public policy issues.
- Broad grounds for the dissolution of a CSO. An administrative court can dissolve a CSO on grounds that include, for example, its receipt of funds or donations in violation of the law, or affiliation with a foreign entity in violation of the law [Art. 72]. The court also can impose a host of other sanctions, including cancellation of particular activities, suspension of all activities for a period of time, and removal of directors from the board [Art. 72].
- Imposition of harsh penalties. The presidency’s draft includes steep fines for a number of offenses, including the receipt of funds from abroad in the absence of permission from the Coordination Committee. The draft also incorporates provisions of the penal code, exposing associations and their members to disproportionate penalties [Art. 70].
The presidency’s draft does include several improvements over earlier versions of the bill. It eliminates a provision, found in the drafts of the FJP and the Shura Council, that treated CSO assets as “public funds.” Egyptian CSOs had advocated vigorously against this provision, as Egyptian law allows any citizen to request an investigation of spending from “public funds,” and allows a court to impose severe penalties if it finds that public funds have been misused.
The new draft also includes some technical improvements with respect to foreign funding. If a CSO has previously been permitted by the Coordination Committee to receive funds from a particular foreign organization, then it need only notify the Coordination Committee, rather than seek approval, before accepting additional funding from that organization. In addition, CSOs may receive “donations” from foreign organizations. However, if the donating entity is not licensed to operate in Egypt, then the CSO must notify the Coordination Committee, which has 30 days to object. The law does not define “donations,” but distinguishes them from funding; it will be important for advocates to seek clarification on what constitutes a donation as the draft law is considered by the Shura Council.
Finally, the presidency’s draft incorporates a new procedural protection, requiring the Coordination Committee to “justify” its decisions with respect to foreign CSOs. Presumably, this will provide greater clarity on the reasons for a decision should it be appealed. However, the law does not explain what it means to justify a decision, which may make this provision less useful than it might have been.
It is not yet clear when the Shura Council will take up the bill. The chamber is normally an advisory body, but it currently holds legislative powers due to the absence of the lower house, the People’s Assembly. Both Egyptian and international organizations have urged the council to postpone consideration of any new civil society law until after fresh elections for the People’s Assembly have been held and the new members are seated. At that time, the parliament should consult with the CSO sector with the aim of drafting a law that is free of the type of restrictions summarized above, and that instead provides supportive conditions for civil society in Egypt.
* Catherine Shea is Vice President -- Programs at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.
Even as Egypt prepares to elect a new People’s Assembly to replace the chamber that was dissolved by court order in early 2012, the Islamist government is ushering crucial new laws on civil society organizations (CSOs) through the upper house of parliament, the Shura Council. Far from easing the already problematic restrictions of the Mubarak era, the proposed measures would expose CSOs to criminal penalties and arbitrary closure for a range of vaguely defined infractions.
This week marks the release of Freedom in the World 2013, the latest edition of an annual report on global political rights and civil liberties that Freedom House launched nearly 40 years ago. Of the 195 sovereign countries assessed in this year’s report, none was as important to the future direction of global freedom as Egypt, and none was as complex. Egypt, in fact, showed sufficient gains for the year to register an improvement from Not Free to Partly Free on the Freedom House scale. But as the overview narrative for the report notes, “Developments in Egypt encapsulated a pattern in which gains for freedom in the Middle East and North Africa were threatened by opposition from governments, security forces, ruling families, or religiously based political factions.”