FRI 13 - 12 - 2019
Aug 23, 2019
The Daily Star
Egypt activists divided on new NGO law
NGOs urge Macron to call out Egypt's human rights record
CAIRO: Some Egyptian human rights activists Thursday hailed the country’s new law regulating non-governmental organizations as a step forward, while others dismissed it as more of the same restrictive measures. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi ratified the controversial bill, the official Gazette said Wednesday. It amends Egypt’s notorious law regulating local as well as international NGOs working in the country. It was approved last month by Parliament but required Sisi’s ratification.
The legislation partially eases the bureaucratic process for establishing an NGO and eliminates jail penalties for violations of funding rules. “These are nominal amendments that do not change anything about the oppressive nature of the law or its hostility to civil society organizations namely human rights groups,” said Mohamed Zaree, a human rights lawyer with the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “It is exactly as if you had defective merchandise that you decided simply to rebrand and send back on the market.”
In 2017, Sisi signed into law a bill that imposed a plethora of restrictions on civil society organizations, including a possible prison penalty of up to five years. In the new bill, that penalty was replaced by fines of up to 1 million Egyptian pounds, or nearly $60,000.
“This law marks a victory for the civil society despite all its problems,” said Negad al-Borai, a human rights lawyer. “It is true that the fines are too high but there is no jail penalty anymore.”
Borai said Sisi’s government felt obliged to revoke the old law due to pressures by local as well as foreign civil society organizations whose developmental as well as social activities were curtailed under the 2017 legislation. The old law “did not only impact Egyptians but also civil society organizations worldwide that wanted to work in Egypt or fund projects in Egypt but could not,” Borai said. He added that some of the bureaucratic hurdles on funding were also lifted.
Under the new law, local NGOs must notify the government of any potential foreign funding. The government has only 60 days to challenge the payment. If no challenge is filed, the grant is considered approved. “For the first time, the law sets a deadline for the government’s response. Prior to that, civil society organizations could wait for up to two years until they heard from the government. In those cases, organizations usually missed funding opportunities,” Borai said.
Meanwhile, several Egyptian rights groups urged a U.N. agency to rule out Egypt as the host of its conference on torture because of the dismal human rights record.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was to hold a conference in Egypt in early September on the criminalization of torture in Arab countries, a gathering organized in collaboration with the government.
But earlier this week, OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville said the conference named “Conference on Defining and Criminalizing Torture in Legislation in the Arab Region” was postponed following criticism from Egyptian rights groups. Colville did defend his organization’s initial decision to hold the conference in Cairo. “There is of course quite a lot of value in holding a conference that aims to try and reduce torture in a country [and the wider region] where torture is taking place. If you think about it, there’s rather less point in preaching to the converted in countries where torture never happens,” Colville said.
The government-controlled National Council on Human Rights issued a statement Wednesday saying the OHCHR decision came as a surprise, adding that it could have “contributed a lot to efforts aiming at fighting torture ... and spreading a human rights culture in Egypt and the Arab world.”
NGOs urge Macron to call out Egypt's human rights record
CAIRO: Rights groups Thursday urged French President Emmanuel Macron to denounce the "worsening human rights crisis" under Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the G7 Summit in France later this month.
Sisi is slated to attend the international meeting where Macron will host world leaders in the city of Biarritz August 24-26.
"Public space has been virtually closed down in Egypt in the midst of a worsening human rights crisis, with a severe rollback of the freedoms of expression, assembly, association and the press," the group of 20 human rights organisations said in a statement.
The coalition lambasting Sisi's record included international advocacy organisations, such as Human Rights Watch and Reporters without Borders, as well as Egyptian civil society groups.
Earlier Thursday, several groups urged a U.N. agency to rule out Egypt as the host of its conference on torture.
The development came as Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi ratified Wednesday a controversial bill regulating the work of non-governmental groups in the country, a law that activists and civil society groups have widely criticized as oppressive.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was to hold a conference in Egypt in early September on the criminalization of torture in Arab countries, a gathering organized in collaboration with the Egyptian government.
But earlier this week, OHCHR spokesman Rupert Colville said the conference was postponed following criticism from Egyptian rights groups. He did not say for when it was postponed.
Thirteen local rights groups said in a statement Wednesday that holding the conference in Egypt would contribute to the government's "whitewashing attempts" and urged the OHCHR to select a country where "the bare minimum of human rights is respected."
Meanwhile, the bill ratified by el-Sisi and announced in the official gazette, introduces a set of amendments to Egypt's notorious law regulating NGOs and their work in the country. It was approved last month by parliament but required el-Sisi's ratification.
Although the new legislation partially eases the bureaucratic process of establishing an NGO and eliminates jail penalties for violations of funding rules, activists still describe it as restrictive and a window-dressing attempt by el-Sisi's government.
In recent years, Egypt has tightened its grip on rights organizations by prosecuting their leaders over receiving foreign funding, barring them from travel and freezing their assets - measures that triggered wide international criticism.
A famous case against NGOs in Egypt dated back to just months after the 2011 uprising that toppled autocratic President Hosni Mubarak, when Egypt's military claimed that protests against its direct rule between February 2011 and June 2012 were funded by foreigners. At the time, it ordered raids on more than a dozen offices of rights and freedom advocacy groups, seizing files and computers.
A total of 43 NGO workers, including German and U.S. nationals, were charged with illegally received funding for their local and foreign NGOs. The 43 were convicted by a lower court in 2013 but none spent time in jail. The only three who received prison terms – up to three years – were tried in absentia. Last December, the 43 were finally acquitted of the charges.
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