Egypt is transitioning to democracy, and a well-functioning civil society is a key part of that process. To that end, President Mohamed Morsy's office has put forward a draft law that would regulate NGOs operating in Egypt. Some have argued that the legislation, which is currently being considered by the Shura Council, would repress civil society -- but a fair reading of the law shows that this is entirely baseless.
"The Muslim Brotherhood lays the foundations for a new police state by exceeding the Mubarak regime's mechanisms to suppress civil society," read the headline of a statement by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, signed by 40 NGOs, enumerating their concerns with the draft NGO law. The presidency has carefully reviewed these concerns -- as well as similar issues raised by international NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch -- and found that most are either based on speculations or misinterpretation of the law, or have already been duly addressed in the final draft.
First, the statement claims that "[t]he bill seeks to subject civic entities to strict executive oversight under what is termed the "Coordinating Committee," which is given broad powers to adjudicate in all matters related to foreign funding for national organizations and the licensing and operation of foreign NGOs in Egypt." This is completely baseless for a number of reasons: The main objective of forming the coordinating committee is to consolidate all government entities with which international NGOs deal into one, so as to facilitate registration and limit any bureaucratic complications.
The law includes guarantees for transparency and doesn't grant the committee any control over organizations. The committee must provide a legally accepted reason for any decision regarding registration or funding requested by the NGOs, thus limiting its ability to interfere or impose restrictions on the NGOs for political or authoritarian motives. Moreover, the committee has no authority to stop illegal activities or funding or to dissolve an NGO without a final court order.
The draft legislation also created a clear reference point with regards to denying registration or objecting to activities or funding -- the Egyptian Constitution and our country's legal framework. Once foreign-funded NGOs are registered or obtain the general approval to receive funds they operate freely and receive funding, provided they notify the coordination committee without requiring or waiting for any other approval.
The NGOs' statement admits the draft does not include a provision stipulating that Egypt's security agencies will be present in the coordination committee. However, it assumes that the security agencies will nevertheless be part of the committee, and would therefore arbitrarily bar organizations from receiving foreign funding. In fact, the presidency has removed the provision calling for security agencies' involvement from its draft precisely to avoid this possibility.
The main philosophy behind the law is to help transform Egypt from a police state into a civil, democratic state governed by the rule of law. With regards to the composition of the coordination committee, the draft allows the relevant minister to appoint half its members, while the other half would be chosen by an elected body (the National Federation for Civil Society). It would be normal for the competent minister to consult with other ministries as part of inter-agency coordination, which also exists in other democracies. But regardless of the composition of the committee, the law limits the control of any of its members over the NGOs by adding a condition that the decisions of the committee must be based on legally accepted reasons. The activities that are considered "illegal" are clearly listed in the law -- the creation of military or paramilitary formations, targeting profit, and partisan political activities.