Since the toppling of the Mubarak regime, Egypt’s NGOs enjoyed a brief renaissance in a country where they filled the void of civil society.
Inspired by the revolution, a handful of new NGOs and initiatives sprung up in hopes that the end of Mubarak’s regime would also usher a new era of civil engagement and freedom for the non-governmental organizations and associations.
Mosireen, a nonprofit media initiative, emerged in late February 2011. Since then, it has run several public screenings and activist campaigns, most recently bringing international media attention to the torture of children who are arrested at protests.
“On a daily basis, you can do more now,” Khalid Abdalla, an actor and founding member of Mosireen acknowledged.
Two years later, Egypt’s nonprofit organizations and human rights groups are facing increasing pressure from the Islamist government, with many existing organizations struggling to survive and facing more restrictions on their sources of foreign financing.
“The space that’s been opened, it’s not being protected,” Abdalla said.
Over the past year, the pressure on NGOs has been growing steadily.
In February last year, an Egyptian court charged 43 international and Egyptian NGO workers with receiving US funding without the appropriate authorization while working in Egypt. The pending trial was postponed until June.
Then, in late May, the nonprofit groups reached an agreement with the government on a new draft bill that would revise the Mubarak-era NGO law. It fell apart when the parliament was dissolved in June 2012, and the negotiations returned to square one.
Now the Freedom and Justice Party, a political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, is seeking to overhaul the governing law regulating NGO work in Egypt ahead of the parliamentary elections.
“They are not open to any real discussions with the NGOs,” says Ehab Sallam, program director at United Group, a legal advocacy organization that negotiates with the government on behalf of the NGOs.
Last month, several NGOs received a letter from the Insurance and Social Affairs Ministry instructing local organizations not to engage with “international entities” without the security agency’s permission, according to Amnesty International and the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.
“NGOs in Egypt already face staggering restrictions, but this instruction is a new low,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, in a statement. “It is a disturbing indicator of what may lie ahead for human rights groups in the government’s new law.”
This week, Egypt’s Shura Council, the upper house of parliament, reviewed the latest draft introduced by the ruling Freedom and Justice party.
The new bill will be a major setback for international NGOs and Egyptian human rights groups that rely on foreign funding to conduct their work.“For the international NGOs it will be extremely restrictive, really elevating Egypt to a group of of countries that includes Russia, Ethiopia [and] Zimbabwe, when it comes to complete paranoia about the work of international organizations,” said Heba Morayef, director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch in Egypt.
The new law would legalize the current de facto role of the state security agency in approval of funding and increase their leverage and controls of both domestic and foreign NGOs. Instead of a government ministry in charge of financing approvals, it will authorize a committee composed of state security, intelligence, internal affairs and other departments.
“This law increases those controls, the lifeline for human rights NGOs who are critical of the government and dependent on foreign funding,” Morayef said. “It would allow them arbitrarily to block their [NGO] activities.”
Many NGOs, particularly human rights organization and those working with youth, already had to slash budgets and cut staff in response to delays in financing approvals from government agencies.
“The time it takes for approval has been increasing,” says Loay El Shawarby, chairman of Nahdet El Mahrousa, a support network for Egypt’s social entrepreneurs. El Shawarby says it now takes up to 15 months to secure government approvals for outside funding compared to five to nine months before the revolution, which leaves many organizations stranded for cash. “Most NGOs are worse off,” he notes.
If the current version of the law is adopted, the time it takes to approve the funding will likely increase and the government will not have to give an explanation for rejecting foreign funding.
For some NGOs, it can take up to three years to receive approval for this funding in Egypt after securing the outside funds.
What is also worrying activists is the timing, the lack of transparency around the new draft bill. “It’s moving so fast,” says Zaree. “I’m afraid by moving so fast, there is not enough time to discuss the law.”
Further politicizing the controversy surrounding the NGO law is that fact the Muslim Brotherhood, which was officially outlawed under Mubarak, is now seeking to register as a legal entity. (It is considering a name change as well to Comprehensive Islamic Authority.) To this day, the group receives donations through its individual members as it was never legally registered.
It’s unclear whether the new law will apply to them in the same way or they would be able to secure a legal loophole, as some suggest they are trying to do.
“The group is legalizing its status to accommodate the largest number of new members and to be clearer to the public,” Ahmed Aref, the group’s spokesman told Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper in late February. “The new law is not only for NGOs but also for associations and foundations.”
FJP did not return requests to elaborate.
Perhaps most worrying for the human rights activists is the provision in the new bill that would equate approved NGO funds with public funds.
“It will mean nationalization of civil society,” says Mohamed Zaree at Cairo Institute for Human Rights. “It will be worse than under Mubarak.”
Even if many of the laws and restrictions remain the same for the NGOs in Egypt, one thing has changed.
“So many more people are fighting them now,” Abdalla notes.
Daria Solovieva covers business and politics in the Middle East from Cairo. She is on Twitter @dariasolo