Africa, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

EGYPT: Civil Society Sidelined Ahead of Elections

Cam McGrath

CAIRO, Mar 26 2010 (IPS) - Egypt’s ruling party is taking measures to restrict the work of non-governmental organisations ahead of crucial parliamentary elections.

“The future is very dark for us,” says Nasser Amin, director of the Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession (ACIJLP). “The government will do anything to win the upcoming elections…and it will take aggressive action against anyone who participates, or monitors them.”

Elections for Egypt’s upper house of parliament are scheduled for May and for the lower house in the fall. The parliamentary elections will help determine who will be eligible to run for the presidency in 2011.

President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for 28 years, has not said whether he will run again. The 81-year-old leader is widely believed to be grooming his son, Gamal, as his successor.

A strong majority in parliament would help the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) secure its candidate in the presidential race, says Amin. “The government wants a secure legislative bloc so it can make constitutional changes before the presidential election.”

Electoral oversight has become a contentious issue. The government has barred the independent judiciary and international observers from monitoring polling stations. Now it appears to be taking aim at NGOs engaged in voter registration and election monitoring.

A draft law about to go before the NDP-dominated parliament would tighten the noose on these groups, say rights activists. The bill is said to require Egypt’s 25,000 NGOs to join a federation that would vet their licenses and supervise their funding and activities.

“The General Federation of Civic Associations – which is, in fact, a semi- governmental body – is being set up as a cover through which the administrative body, or more precisely, the security apparatus, which has the first and last word in the fate of NGOs, can impose punitive, arbitrary decisions to freeze or suspend any NGO, dismiss its administrative board or take legal measures to dissolve the NGO entirely,” a petition signed by 41 NGOs said.

Hafez Abu Seada, chairman of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), says the bill would expand on draconian legislation passed in 2002 that gives executive authorities broad discretion to suspend or dissolve any NGO or advocacy group that engages in political activities.

“Before, they had to take you to court (first),” he says. “But now they can suspend all your activities, close you down and keep you from working until after the elections – and then you go to court.”

Legal experts say the bill’s vague terminologies have been constructed to close loopholes that have allowed democracy activists to slip through the cracks. The term ‘entity’ is used to refer to a NGO, whatever legal form it takes, while the phrase ‘association mission’ refers to any number of unspecified activities.

“The law says they can shut any entity that decides to work on an association mission, but they never identify what this means,” explains lawyer and rights activist Negad El-Borai. “They can use this as a hammer against NGOs.”

El-Borai expects the government to ram the bill through parliament in the coming months and pass it before voter registration begins.

“Do we have a foolish government? No, we have a smart government – they choose the right time to put things under control,” he says.

The Egyptian government may have a few more tricks up its sleeves. In 2004 it established the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) to monitor and report on human rights. Critics say the council, whose 27 members are handpicked by the President, is window-dressing designed to gloss over human rights abuses and drown out criticism from independent rights groups.

The ruling party appears to be preparing several more of these government- operated non-governmental organisations, or ‘GONGOs’, to create the illusion of independent electoral oversight.

“The government is looking for them to work in cooperation with the NCHR to monitor elections,” says Amin. “It would use GONGOs as monitors, while preventing independent NGOs from reporting on violations.”

Opponents say the strategy would effectively sideline pro-democracy groups without attracting the negative press associated with shutting them down. Meanwhile, legal bullying keeps the groups distracted and on the defensive.

“They don’t shut you down; they just put you in the middle of a lot of problems,” El-Borai explains. “Every day you find yourself in the public prosecutor’s office, and at the end of the day you don’t have enough time to do what you established the NGO to do.”

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