Outcry against Egypt's move to monitor NGOs

Outcry against Egypt's move to monitor NGOs
A view of Egypt's river Nile.

CAIRO - Egypt's ultimatum to thousands of non-governmental organisations to register with the government by November 10 will deal a death blow to the country's civil society, activists say.

Armed with a law from the era of Hosni Mubarak, the autocratic president ousted in 2011, the new authorities in Egypt are aiming to keep tabs on the activities and funding of NGOs by forcing them to register.

The move comes nearly three years after Egypt's then military rulers infuriated Washington by raiding five foreign NGOs and putting on trial their staff, including the son of Ray LaHood, the US transport secretary at the time.

Rights activists say it is part of an ongoing crackdown against supporters of deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, as well as the government's secular opponents.

"This is an attempt to silence the last voice speaking against the repressive measures of the police state," one of them, lawyer Gamal Eid, told AFP.

Several Egyptian and international NGOs, which have been operating as law firms or private companies, have frequently denounced the crackdown.

Since Morsi's ouster last year, at least 1,400 supporters of the Islamist and his Muslim Brotherhood have been killed and thousands jailed.

Dozens of secularists, including prominent anti-Mubarak activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, have also been jailed for holding unauthorised protests.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and supporters of the former army chief say democracy cannot come at the expense of stability, and that Egypt needs a firm hand to get back on its feet after almost four years of turbulence.

In August, the authorities barred Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth from entering the country.

Roth had been due to present a report that charged that the dispersals by police of protests at two Cairo squares in August 2013, in which hundreds of Morsi supporters died, were likely "crimes against humanity".

Some rights groups have already shut their offices in Egypt, including a democracy watchdog founded by former US president Jimmy Carter.

The Carter Center said it closed its Egypt field office this month because "the current environment in Egypt is not conducive to genuine democratic and civic participation".

'Goal same as Mubarak's'

Experts say the registration of NGOs would allow the government to closely monitor their activities and sources of funding, especially if they came from abroad.

The move would also give the authorities means to quickly dissolve NGOs if required.

The authorities could "interfere in all activities of these associations in detail," said Mohamed Zaree of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

Activists are also concerned about a new law that is still being drawn up.

According to a draft that the authorities circulated to NGOs, the government proposes setting up an inter-ministerial commission including security representatives to oversee nearly 47,000 NGOs in the country.

The commission would supervise foreign funds received by Egyptian NGOs, and also vet foreign ones that want to set up chapters in the country.

The new law would "respect international standards," said Khaled Soltan, an official at the social solidarity ministry.

"We are neither against human rights, nor against organisations that defend them but any NGO should be subjected to administrative supervision."

In December 2011, the military junta that ruled after Mubarak raided and closed 17 Egyptian and foreign NGOs.

Forty-three of their staff, among them foreigners, were sentenced to prison after being convicted of working for organisations that had operated without licences and received illicit funds.

Most of the foreigners were sentenced in absentia, including Sam LaHood, the son of the US transport secretary, who was able to fly out of the country after a travel ban was lifted.

"If Egypt is serious about moving forward from its recent past, the authorities must turn away from this law and instead enable an environment for NGOs to ensure human rights are protected and promoted," Amnesty International's Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui said in May.

Activists who believe these NGOs have played a vital role in exposing human rights violations in Egypt say the future of these groups is at stake.

"The goal is the same as during Mubarak's rule, to control organisations defending human rights with an iron fist," said Ehab Radi, a lawyer at the Arab House for Human Rights.

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