The Egyptian Gazette - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 06:55:23 PM
CAIRO – Launching a new NGO in Egypt could come with many obstacles, such as start-up capitals, red tape and problems with receiving funds, either from inside Egypt or from elsewhere.
"The law governing NGOs in Egypt is in dire need of more amendments," according to Ahmed Abdel-Aziz, the head of the NGOs and Civil Society Department in Giza’s Social Solidarity Directorate.
NGOs have played a big role in improving civil society, despite the outdated law and the government’s inattention. These organizations have helped many Egyptians by providing education, eradicating poverty, increasing political awareness and advocating for women’s rights.
In 2002, there was no fixed start-up budget for an NGO, according to Law No. 84; it was simply estimated by officials at the Social Solidarity Ministry, the authority responsible for licensing NGOs and permitting them to receive foreign funding.
But now any new NGO must have at least LE100,000, though remains unclear how this might affect the work of NGOs in Egypt.
“It’s a lot of money, but it gives credibility to the projects sponsored by any newly-established NGO,” Abdel-Aziz told the Egyptian Mail. "Most NGOs ask a lot from the Ministry of Social Solidarity, but their projects often fail due to poor planning.”
Abdel-Aziz noted, though, that past NGOs have succeeded in pioneering well-planned marketing models that created long-term, sustainable projects.
"However, a strategic plan for civil work in Egypt is needed in the coming years because the development of society totally depends on the impact of these organisations. Fundraising, all over the world, needs to be creative to encourage people to donate and partake in societal development,” Abdel-Aziz said. “It’s not just a matter of NGOs getting new licenses.”
Khaled Eissa disagreed. The board director of an Egyptian human rights group and expert in international law explained that receiving funds is not an obstacle if NGOs follow certain procedures.
According to the Ministry of Social Solidarity, funding must be put into a bank account of a licensed institution, and not into personal accounts. To donate to an NGO from outside Egypt, the donor must notify the Ministry, which will then send the payment documents through a security check to verify that the deposit is truly going to a non-profit organisation in Egypt.
In a comment on foreign funding, Eissa said that this process is illegal and a form of indirect government intervention in local affairs.
According to Eissa, "Some NGOs received funds from foreigners without notifying the Egyptian authorities. NGOs can receive money from and co-operate with foreign bodies without harming Egypt” said Eissa.
The human rights organisations in Egypt that have worked with different foreign institutions in the past have always been under the watch of secure authorities and there is concern that restrictions on NGOs may harm society.
NGOs are 99 percent responsible for development projects for the poor and needy, who suffer greatly in Egypt.
“NGO workers want a new law to facilitate their work because many organisations cannot afford the LE100,000 requirement,” according to Eissa.
The Board Chairman of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, Hafez Abu Seda, said the draft law, signed by 55 NGOs and other organisations, will hopefully contribute to the development of society in the near future.
Abu Seda describes various NGO laws in Egypt, such as Law No. 32 of 1964 and Law No. 84 of 2002 as unsuitable because they favour the administrative authority of the Ministry.
"NGOs don't want to sever their relations with the government, but they want more cooperation from the Ministry to facilitate their work," he said.
The Minister of Insurance and Social Solidarity said in a recent statement that a new law is being discussed by the Ministry as an alternative to the law passed under the previous Ministry, which many NGOs described as rigidly limiting.
Abu Seda explained the new law, backed by a number of NGOs, is simpler than the previous one because it contains only 35 articles, whereas the old law contained 75.
“The new draft bill has been presented to different political parties and the Ministry, but we’ve had no response yet,” Abu Seda said.
‘Gov’t crackdown shocking and ambiguous’
Egyptian lawyers and human rights activists have strongly condemned the security forces’ crackdown on 17 NGOs, 400 of whose staff members are being investigated.
The raid was launched under the pretext that these NGOs had received funding from foreign governments in ways that violated Egyptian laws.
They say that the security forces only target organisations working in the field of human rights awareness.
"These NGOs worked and received funding for many years under the eyes of the government during President Hosni Mubarak’s administration. Why can the government receive aid, but NGOs can’t?" asks Tawhed Ramzi, a lawyer.
The timing of the crackdown is of concern to some Egyptian lawyers and human rights activists including Ramzi, who believes that there are political reasons behind the raid.
The NGOs raided include the Mohamed Alaa Mubarak Organisation, the Democratic Institution, the Republican Institution and Ansar Al-Sunnah Al-Mohamadiya (The Supporters of Al-Sunnah Al-Mohamadiya).
The latter has been accused of receiving about $300 million from Qatar and Kuwait, as investigations continue.
Ramzi finds the investigations into Ansar Al-Sunnah Al-Mohamadiya ambiguous because its role is only to help the poor. Investigators at a press conference earlier this month said they had discovered the existence of secret bank accounts in the names of the suspected NGOs and their staff members.
There are nearly 70 charges against these organisations. Some of these include illegal residences of some foreign members of staffs and tax fraud. According to investigators, these NGOs operated in Egypt without obtaining the necessary licenses from the government. They have also been accused of meddling in Egyptian politics.
Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and a consultant in Al-Sout Al-Hor (Free Voice) Institution, said the government is trying to divert Egypt’s attention away from the revolution by focusing on NGO issues.
“The government is working all the time to prove that the revolution has had a negative impact, instead of the positive impact it has actually had. I think this is really shocking, as civil society organisations must work without any restrictions,” he told the Egyptian Mail.
Criticism of NGO crackdown
"The NGOs weren’t given prior notice, nor were they allowed to defend themselves. The offices of the NGOs were raided and all their documents were confiscated by the security forces," says Ramzi.
He argued that the local press has been eager to highlight the government’s position in this case, while neglecting the viewpoints of the activists themselves. Though these NGOs have been accused of working without licenses, some of them, as Ramzi said, were in the process of applying for them when they were raided.
Khaled el-Henawi of Al-Sahwa, a charitable NGO, said the issue of foreign funding should only be of concern to NGOs working in human rights, and those involved in charitable activities.
“It’s obvious that the crackdown was prompted because these organisations are anti-government,” said el-Henawi.
He questions the timing of these investigations because these organisations have been working in Egypt for many years.
An Egyptian court on February 26 postponed the trial of pro-democracy activists accused of illegally receiving foreign funds until April 10. Lawyers said the decision would give them and the judge more time to review the case.
Among 43 defendants targeted in a judicial probe, some Americans have taken refuge at their embassy in Cairo because the incident has caused tension between Egypt and the US.
Meanwhile, the suspects have denied the charges, the maximum penalty for which is five years behind bars.
The democracy groups' leaders deny their activists have done anything improper or illegal. Senator John McCain, who recently visited Cairo, said that Field Marshal Tantawi is working “diligently” to resolve the issue.
Earlier this month, Minister of Planning and International Co-operation, Fayza Abul Naga linked US funding of civil society initiatives to an American plot to undermine Egypt. Minister Abul Naga had told investigating judges that Washington funded the groups to cause "chaos" in Egypt.
"The United States and Israel could not create chaos in Egypt directly, so they used indirect funding to organisations, especially American ones, to do this," she said in her testimony.