Egypt has introduced a law that makes it easier for the Egyptian authorities to shut down non-governmental organisations that are viewed as being too outspoken or critical, activists say.
The law, passed by the parliament last Tuesday, will let security agencies decide the fate of some 47,000 human rights organisations and charities – including that of those which were involved in the 2011 uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak.
It has also come at a time when dozens of human rights activists face jail terms of up to 25 years for receiving funds from international donors. The government alleges that the donations were used to destabilise the country.
Since President Abdel Fattah el Sisi took power in 2014, hundreds of political opponents, rights activists and journalists have been jailed or forced into exile.
How easy is it for the law to be misused?
Most of the NGOs likely to be affected focus on exposing alleged abuses by authorities, such as police brutality, the arrest of political dissidents on false charges, and exposing alleged corruption by public officials or military figures.
Now, however, their work has been made even more difficult.
— Youssef Cherif (@Faiyla) November 30, 2016
The law that awaits Sisi's final nod has vague wording, meaning that it could easily be used in courts against NGOs. Without a clear definition, terms such as "the state’s plan and public morals” can be interpreted by government officials in any number of ways.
It also prohibits human rights organisations from doing anything, for instance, that is viewed as being against "national security."
"Making a film about poverty or writing a report about a protest or attacks on Copts or human rights abuses in [the] Sinai could be deemed harmful to national unity," Mohamed Lotfy, executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, told The Guardian.
The Sinai is a desert peninsula in eastern Egypt where the military has killed thousands of people it claims are Daesh supporters. Yet the government has not allowed independent observers to investigate reports of civilian casualties and has effectively imposed a media blackout in the area.
Neither does the law allow civil society activists to perform activities that it says should be restricted to only political groups, professional bodies and trade unions.
This is so stifling, in the view of Ziad Bahaa-Eldin, Egypt's former deputy prime minister, that it means even NGOs fighting for customers’ rights, workplace discrimination, or protesting against price hikes could all face prosecution.
"What can they do to ensure that their activities are not political or labour advocacy or harmful to the public order?" Bahaa-Eldin demanded, in an article he wrote for the independet Egyptian newspaper, El-Shorouq.
On that question, the text of the new law doesn’t offer any answers.
In another dramatic move to limit critical voices, NGOs now must have all their reports and surveys vetted by government officers before they publish. That includes opinion polls on the performance of government departments.
Would this law bankrupt NGOs?
Receiving funds from international sources without the government's consent has long been viewed suspiciously by the Egyptian authorities.
The new law goes much further - now anyone found to be receiving funding without the government's approval can go to jail for five years.
All requests related to donations from abroad must first seek permission from a body called the National Agency for the Regulation of Foreign Non-Governmental Organisations.
It would be made up of representatives from the ministries of defence, interior, foreign affairs and intelligence, raising concern that NGOs critical of the government would, in practise, effectively be blocked from receiving overseas donations.
Has foreign funding been a problem in the past?
Fear of foreign powers sending money to destabilise Egypt has made successive governments paranoid.
Sisi, the former head of Egypt’s military, says civil society received $116 million from foreign backers between 2013 and 2015.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian armed forces continue to be the second largest recipient of US military aid in the world. That revenue flow will not be affected by the new law.
Just months after the January 2011 uprising that saw Mubarak’s removal, authorities arrested dozens of civil society activists, accusing them of working on the behest of foreign backers.
Known as the Case 173, a Cairo criminal court in June 2013 sentenced 43 foreigners and Egyptians to prison for up to five years, and ordered the closure of five international NGOs.
What does this law mean for Egyptian civil society?
Egypt's track record on human rights is increasingly dire. But even under the iron-fisted rule of Hosni Mubarak, the number of NGOs had grown to 26,000 by 2010.
This is not to say that civil society was free during the era. Arbitrary arrests, torture, censorship and corruption were widespread during Mubarak's 30-year rule.
Yet Egypt’s well-established civil society somehow managed to prosper.
Newspapers critical of Mubarak's government were published, the legendary Egyptian jokes mocking politicians did the usual rounds and NGOs were active.
And when a young photographer Khaled Said was beaten to death by police in 2010 because he had uploaded a video of police corruption social activists turned the tragedy into a revolution.
With human rights activists already feeling the wrath of the government, the law would be a "death warrant for civil society in Egypt," said Amnesty International.
Author: Saad Hasan