CAIRO -- Some Egyptian human rights activists Thursday hailed the country's new law regulating non-governmental organizations as a step forward, while others dismissed it as more of the same restrictive measures.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi ratified the controversial bill, the official Gazette said Wednesday. It amends Egypt's notorious law regulating local as well as international NGOs working in the country. It was approved last month by parliament but required el-Sissi's ratification.
The new legislation partially eases the bureaucratic process for establishing an NGO and eliminates jail penalties for violations of funding rules.
"These are nominal amendments that do not change anything about the oppressive nature of the law or its hostility to civil society organizations namely human rights groups," said Mohamed Zaree, a human rights lawyer with the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. "It is exactly as if you had defective merchandise that you decided simply to rebrand and send back on the market."
In recent years, Egypt has tightened its grip on rights organizations by prosecuting their leaders over receiving foreign funding, barring them from travel and freezing their assets — measures that triggered wide international criticism.
Just months after the 2011 uprising that toppled autocratic President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's military claimed that protests against its direct rule between February 2011 and June 2012 were funded by foreigners. It ordered raids on more than a dozen offices of rights and freedom advocacy groups, seizing files and computers.
A total of 43 NGO workers, including German and U.S. nationals, were charged with illegally receiving funding for their local and foreign NGOs. They were convicted by a lower court in 2013 but none spent time in jail. The only three who received prison terms — up to three years — were tried in absentia. Last December, all 43 were acquitted.
In 2017, el-Sissi signed into law a bill that imposed a plethora of restrictions on civil society organizations, including a possible prison penalty of up to five years. In the new bill, that penalty was replaced by fines of up to 1 million Egyptian pounds, or nearly $60,000
"This law marks a victory for the civil society despite all its problems," said Negad el-Borai, a human rights lawyer. "It is true that the fines are too high but there is no jail penalty anymore."
Borai said el-Sissi's government felt obliged to revoke the old law due to pressures by local as well as foreign civil society organizations whose developmental as well as social activities were curtailed under the 2017 legislation.
The old law "did not only impact Egyptians but also civil society organizations worldwide that wanted to work in Egypt or fund projects in Egypt but could not," said Borai . He added that some of the bureaucratic hurdles on funding were also lifted.
Under the new law, local NGOs must notify the government of any potential foreign funding. The government has only 60 days to challenge the payment. If no challenge is filed, the grant is considered approved.
"For the first time, the law sets a deadline for the government's response. Prior to that, civil society organizations could wait for up to two years until they heard from the government. In those cases, organizations usually missed funding opportunities," said Borai.
Also on Wednesday, several Egyptian rights groups urged a U.N. agency to rule out Egypt as the host of its conference on torture because of the country's dismal human rights record.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was to hold a conference in Egypt in early September under on the criminalization of torture in Arab countries, a gathering organized in collaboration with the Egyptian government.
But earlier this week, OHCHR spokesman Rupert Colville said the conference named "Conference on Defining and Criminalizing Torture in Legislation in the Arab Region" was postponed following criticism from Egyptian rights groups.
"We were well aware of the growing unease in some parts of the NGO community with the choice of location, and we understand and are sensitive to their concerns," Colville said in an email. "As a result, we decided to postpone the conference and reopen the process of consultation with all relevant actors ... before making a final decision on when and where to hold the conference."
Meanwhile, Colville defended his organization's initial decision to hold the conference in Cairo.
"There is of course quite a lot of value in holding a conference that aims to try and reduce torture in a country (and the wider region) where torture is taking place. If you think about it, there's rather less point in preaching to the converted in countries where torture never happens," Colville said.
Thirteen local rights groups said in a statement Wednesday that holding the conference in Egypt would contribute to the government's "whitewashing attempts" and urged OHCHR to select a country where "the bare minimum of human rights is respected."
"The record of the Egyptian government does not show any political will to fight torture; on the contrary, the government fights all efforts aiming at stopping such practices," read the statement, which dubbed Egypt "the capital of torture."
The government-controlled National Council on Human Rights issued a statement Wednesday saying the OHCHR decision came as a surprise, adding that it could have "contributed a lot to efforts aiming at fighting torture ... and spreading a human rights culture in Egypt and the Arab world."