By Reem Rayef
On June 7, 2013, the Middle East Institute hosted an event entitled “Egypt’s Draft NGO Law: Impact and Implications.” The event featured Sarah Margon, deputy Washington director of the Human Rights Watch, and Nancy Okail, director of Freedom House’s Egypt office, and was moderated by MEI Senior Vice President Kate Seelye. Okail is among the 43 NGO staffers convicted as a result of the draft law, having been convicted in absentia to five years in prison. Panelists examined possible adverse effects of the controversial draft law, including undermining Egyptian civil society, human rights, and multilateral development.
Seelye opened the discussion by expressing her sympathies for all defendants involved in the case, several of whom were present in the audience. She noted that despite hopes of an improved environment within which NGOs could operate in Egypt following the toppling of the Mubarak regime, the situation reveals that “the same objectives that informed...the old NGO law are informing the new draft law, and that is a desire to restrict [Egyptian civil society] as much as possible.”
The draft NGO law, which was written by the Morsi government and has moved from the Shura Council to the General Assembly for debate, has been vehemently decried by several independent organizations operating within Egypt including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Freedom House.
Sarah Margon presented first, highlighting articles within the draft law that are unclear, contradictory, noncompliant with international standards for human rights, or “antithetical to the ideals of the revolution.” She described the draft law in general as “restrictive” and “discretionary,” and surmised that its extremely limiting language reflects the Egyptian bureaucracy’s institutional suspicion of international organizations.
Margon allowed that despite the “arbitrary limitations on fundraising, the fact that it enables the government to interfere [with] internal governance, and [its] severe restrictions on [international] NGOs,” the new draft law is somewhat more progressive than the last one. It removes language prescribing the allocation of NGO money as public funds, which would have subjected NGO accounts to high levels of scrutiny. The draft currently under debate also no longer “set[s] forward an explicit role for the state security apparatus in overseeing the work of NGOs.” Nevertheless, the most pressing of concerns over the law remains: the Coordinating Committee of Egypt’s Shura Council continues to have excessive power over NGOs. The draft law gives this small group of appointed individuals the authority to put a halt to any NGO activities on an arbitrary and largely unchallengeable basis. Furthermore, all internal decisions within Egyptian and international NGOs must be preapproved by this Coordinating Committee.
Speaking to the future of the draft law, Margon predicted that the bill would be passed by the General Assembly within the coming weeks. She expressed hope that the bill would be discarded or significantly amended by the Morsi administration, which demonstrated awareness of the negative international attention the draft law received when government analysts circulated corrections and clarifications regarding the law to several Washington think tanks. Margon concluded that Egypt must “manage [its] own transparency and accountability” and prioritize the interests of civil society on its agenda for reform. Margon and proposed that the United States incentivize the promotion of pro-civil society attitudes in Egypt by reallocating security aid funds.
Nancy Okail spoke briefly, focusing on the implications of the new draft law in practice. Okail highlighted the difficulties presented by articles in the law that made research and gaining access to government information difficult if not impossible. According to Okail, the needs of the Egyptian people must be determined by the civil society organizations “on the ground” rather than the government officials who adopt a “top-down approach” in identifying and resolving national issues. She noted that it is important to contextualize the draft law within the greater legislative environment, taking into account the demonstration law, the freedom of information law, and the verdict itself in order to understand the broad-reaching draft law, which Okail predicted would adversely affect local organizations in addition to international ones.
During the Q&A, Sebastian Gräfe of the Heinrich Boll Foundation expressed the German government’s particular concern with the verdict of the trial, which resulted in the conviction of two Germans and dissolved the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a civil society foundation closely related to the ruling German conservative party. Gräfe also noted his agreement that the Egyptian government must be incentivized to promote civil society even if foreign donors must resort to hard-line consequences like cutting aid entirely.
Julie Hughes of the National Democratic Institute spoke next about the importance of understanding the differences in how civil society is conceptualized in various nations. While “unruly civil society organizations are absolutely critical... for pluralism and for democracy” in the United States, Hughes asserted that in Egypt, “there is a much higher threshold for state control.” She argued that Egypt, as a world leader and as an example to other Arab nations undergoing similar post-revolution struggles, must establish the minimum standards for civil society. Hughes affirmed her solidarity with the affected organizations, concluding that “every civil society organization must be free to cry foul and raise their hand and object.”
Amgad Rezk of the Embassy of Egypt noted his appreciation for Margon and Okail’s commentary but lamented the fact that so many of the discussions about the draft law have focused principally on the trial’s verdict rather than the language of the bill itself. In response to the criticisms offered globally, Rezk emphasized that the law was still in the draft stages, and that the Egyptian government welcomed constructive criticism from the public. “The discussion we are having today will be transferred back to the Egyptian government,” he stated, stressing the importance of debate in perfecting legislation. Rezk also clarified that the Coordinating Committee did not have the power to make any final decisions about NGO activities, and that all challenges would have to go through a court ruling, according to his “own interpretation.” Rezk reiterated several times that “we are now trying to judge a law which has not been finalized,” and that more discussion within the Shura Council and General Assembly are still to come.
Okail responded to Rezk’s assurances anecdotally, recalling that a similar discussion occurred when the new Egyptian constitution was being debated in November 2011: public grievances with the draft constitution were met with consolation that the document at hand was not a final copy of the law, and that their input would be considered. “It’s the same with every single law,” Okail explained, “and when you wake up the next day, the law is passed.”
Margon commented on the importance of draft legislation, noting that the UN must not be the only arbiter of the previously discussed minimum standards, but that civil society organizations can (and should) make valuable contributions to pieces of draft legislation.
Paula Schriefer of the State Department was heartened by Rezk’s indication that the Egyptian government would be consulting the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN system in the formation of later drafts of the law, but added that the U.S. government and State Department were outraged by the verdict of the NGO case.
Okail concluded that the main issue Egyptian civil society faces is that “the mindsets of the people who are working on civil society issues are not conditioned [to understand] how civil society works.” Echoing the words of Margon and Hughes, Okail emphasized the importance of NGOs’ input in re-drafting the oppressive legislation that strangles Egyptian civil society.
Dr. Nancy Okail is the director of Freedom House's Egypt program. Okail has a Ph.D. in international development from the University of Sussex with a focus on the power relations of aid, and is currently a visiting scholar at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at John Hopkins University. She has over 12 years' experience in promoting democracy and development in the MENA region. Dr. Okail worked with the Egyptian government as a senior evaluation officer of foreign aid, and has managed programs for Egyptian pro-democracy organizations that challenged the Mubarak regime. Okail was also one of the defendants in the widely publicized foreign NGO case in Egypt.
Sarah Margon is deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch. Prior to joining HRW, Margon was associate director of Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding at the Center for American Progress (CAP), where she researched and wrote on a wide range of issues including human rights, foreign aid, good governance, and global conflicts and crises. Before CAP, Margon served as senior foreign policy advisor to Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and as staff director to the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs. Margon has also worked as a senior policy advisor for Oxfam America and at George Soros' Open Society Institute. A term member at the Council on Foreign Relations, Sarah holds a graduate degree from Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service and an undergraduate degree from Wesleyan University (Connecticut).
Kate Seelye is senior vice president of the Middle East Institute, where she oversees MEI's programs and communications. Prior to joining MEI, Seelye worked as a radio and television journalist covering the Arab world from 2000-2009 from her base in Beirut, Lebanon. She reported on the region for NPR, BBC's The World, PBS' Frontline/World and the renowned Channel Four British investigative news series, Unreported World. Prior to that she worked as a producer for the Newshour with Jim Lehrer on PBS.