CAIRO Egypt's parliament overwhelmingly endorsed a law regulating non-governmental organizations on Tuesday that human rights groups and activists say effectively bans their work and makes it harder for charities to operate.
The bill restricts NGO activity to developmental and social work and introduces jail terms of up to five years for non- compliance.
It bans NGOs from conducting fieldwork or polls without permission or "from cooperating in any way with any international body without the necessary approval". Human rights groups say that includes the United Nations.
The bill also stipulates that foreign NGOs be overseen by a regulating agency that includes representatives of Egypt's military, intelligence service and interior ministry.
The parliament amended the bill to include an increase in the license fee for NGOs to 50,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,812.15) from 10,000 pounds.
Lawmakers who drafted the bill say is necessary to protect national security. The government has long accused human rights groups of taking foreign funds to sow chaos and several are facing investigation over their funding.
"I can say that the law met all the demands of the civil society organizations and the requirements for maintaining national security," said parliament speaker Ali Abdelaal.
Egyptian rights activists say they face the worst crackdown in their history under general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whom they accuse of erasing freedoms won in a 2011 uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule.
The government had been working for years on a new law regulating NGOs, which human rights groups feared would be more restrictive than Mubarak-era rules.
But the bill that was drafted and rushed through by MPs in recent weeks before is tougher than anything the government had considered, including the requirement of oversight into the funding and work of charitable and development groups with no political links.
“Egypt’s parliament is trying to dodge public scrutiny by rushing into force a law that would effectively ban what remains of the country’s independent civil society groups,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a press release on Monday.
NGOs say they have felt exposed since late 2011, when authorities raided 17 pro-democracy and rights groups, accusing them of joining a foreign conspiracy against Egypt.
In 2013, a court ordered the closure of several foreign pro-democracy groups, including U.S.-based Freedom House, and gave jail sentences to 43 NGO staff including 15 Americans who had fled the country.
A case against dozens of Egyptian NGOs and lawyers was never closed but remained largely dormant until this September, when a court approved a freeze on the assets of five human rights activists and three NGOs accused of receiving foreign funds.
Human Rights Watch called on the president, who still needs to ratify the bill, to reject it.
“It is absolutely essential for President al-Sisi to reject this strong-arm maneuver by parliament and assert his prerogative to draft a new law with input from Egyptian organizations,” Whitson said.
($1 = 17.7800 Egyptian pounds)
(Reporting by Nashat Hamdy; Writing by Amina Ismail; Editing by Tom Heneghan)