The independence of nongovernmental organizations in Egypt faces an apparent crackdown, dozens of rights groups warned in a joint statement Saturday.
All Egyptian and international NGOs have until Sept. 2 to register under a restrictive measure passed under ousted president Hosni Mubarak called Law 84/2002. The law allows the government to shut down groups, freeze assets, confiscate property and block funding, virtually at will, according to a Saturday press release by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Under the law, NGOs are not permitted to appeal those decisions, according to the statement.
“The [President Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi government’s demand for all organizations to register under the discredited 2002 law is nothing but an order for them to surrender their independence,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at HRW, said in the release. “There’s no way that an organization can register under Law 84 and still be considered ‘independent’ from the government.”
If the groups take up unauthorized activities, HRW said, they could face criminal penalties including up to one year in prison. They added that authorities under Mubarak “routinely” harassed activists and arbitrarily shut down NGOs.
On Aug. 11, HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth and another senior staff member were denied entry to Egypt. Roth was expected to release a report on the one-year anniversary of a government crackdown on a Muslim Brotherhood rally which left hundreds dead in Cairo.
Egyptian authorities issued a statement earlier this month saying a new version of the law that would be compatible with the country’s 2014 constitution was currently being developed. The updated law would also fulfill all commitments to international treaties signed by the Egyptian government, the statement added.
“The Ministry is keen to encourage foreign NGOs with credibility and experience to work in Egypt to support community development in light of the laws governing their work,” the ministry said. “In Egypt, 89 foreign organizations are currently authorized to work by the state.”
It appealed to NGOs for patience while it completes the process, saying it hoped the groups would “respect the democratic consultative process for the issuance of a new balanced law that support development.”
In 2011, Egyptian security forces launched a series of raids on human rights and pro-democracy organizations, prompting international condemnation. The crackdown was part of a wider investigation into foreign funding of such groups — arguing that foreign actors were stoking unrest in Egypt.
In June 2013, a Cairo court convicted 43 NGO workers arrested in those raids, among them 16 Americans. Authorities accused them of operating without a license and receiving foreign funding.
“Egyptian authorities are using the law to orchestrate a witch hunt against nongovernmental organizations and put them under their thumb,” Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Middle East and North Africa Program deputy director at Amnesty International said in a press release. “The government must withdraw the requirement for compulsory registration of nongovernmental organizations under the current law, which is contrary to international human rights standards.”