Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gives a statement on the sidelines of his meeting with his Romanian counterpart at the Cotroceni Palace in Bucharest on June 19, 2019

Rifts in Egypt after Parliament Amends Civil Society Law

Amendments approved recently by the Egyptian parliament to Egypt’s Civil Society Law have polarized civil society activists amid calls for granting the civil society more freedoms.

The amendments, approved by the parliament on July 14, institute fines in case of violations of the law by civil society activists, instead of imprisonment in the old law. Fines in case of violations of the law can reach as much as a million Egyptian pounds (roughly $60,000), which is a huge amount of money for all civil society organizations.

This is why around 22 civil society organizations and six political parties have issued a statement in which they said the amendments would “massacre” the civil society. The amendments, said the organizations and parties in their statement, would hamper the work of the civil society.

Human Rights Watch said on July 24 that the amendments maintain many of the existing restrictions on the work of Egypt’s civil society organizations. It called on Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to reject the amendments and return them to parliament.

Sisi gave the go-ahead for amending the law in November last year when he was asked about it by an attendee of the National Youth Congress. The law, he said, needed to be amended to ease the work of Egypt’s civil society organizations. A short time later, the government drafted the amendments and then referred them to parliament for approval. Before approving them, the legislature hosted a large number of civil society leaders and activists to debate the amendments.

There are 29,000 civil society organizations in Egypt, according to the Egyptian government. Egypt’s laws impose restrictions on organizations working in the fields of democracy or political lobbying. This is why most of the organizations operating in this country work in the fields of social and economic development by offering financial support to the poor, offering help to widowed women and supporting orphans. Some of the organizations do a wonderful job by helping residents in slums live in better homes. Other organizations help in the delivery of potable water and sewage to deprived villages and areas.

The restrictions maintained by the amendments include preventing civil society organizations from getting involved in activities other than those included in their registration or licensing documents. They limit the work of civil society organizations to social and economic development. Civil society organizations cannot be involved in any political activities in the light of the amendments approved by the parliament on July 14.

They give the authorities the right to intervene to ensure that the work of civil society organizations matches their stated goals and missions.

The same amendments give the authorities the right to suspend civil society organizations for a year in case they get involved in activities that contradict their stated goals and missions.

Nonetheless, the same amendments allow foreigners who have valid residency permits in Egypt to make up 25 per cent of the boards of the civil society organizations. They allow foreign communities in Egypt to found their own civil society organizations, absolve assets owned by the civil society organizations of real estate taxes, and exonerate civil society organizations from customs duties.

The amendments also allow civil society organizations to raise funds from individuals and organizations, both inside and outside Egypt.

“These amendments were hugely debated by the members of the civil society for months,” said Hafez Abu Saeeda, the secretary-general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, by far Egypt’s largest rights group.

“They are also a good step on the road of meeting international human rights standards,” he added.