CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt’s parliament on Tuesday approved a bill to regulate non-governmental organizations in a move human rights groups say effectively bans their work.
Egyptian rights activists say they are facing the worst crackdown in their history amid a wider campaign under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to erase freedoms won in a 2011 uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.
The bill, which is subject to a final vote, bans any civil society work that does not fall under its regulation, restricts NGO activity to developmental and social work and introduces jail terms of up to five years for non compliance.
It also bans NGOs from conducting fieldwork or polls without permission or “from cooperating in any way with any international body without the necessary approval” which human rights groups say includes the United Nations.
The bill stipulates that foreign NGOs be overseen by a regulating agency that includes representatives of the military, general intelligence and the Interior Ministry.
“This law is unprecedented in its repression and is the state’s way of declaring war on human rights organizations,” said Mohamed Zaree, Egypt program manager at the Cairo Institute of Human Rights Studies.
Egypt has accused some NGOs of receiving foreign funding to sow chaos.
Social Solidarity Minister Ghada Waly, whose ministry regulates the NGO sector, said: “The government will submit official comments on the law.” She did not elaborate further.
Parliament approved all 89 articles of the bill on Tuesday but sent it to the State Council for review and will hold a final vote on it later.
The government had been working on a similar bill for the past two years, but 204 lawmakers drafted their own version, which parliament began debating on Monday.
Legal Affairs Minister Magdi al-Agaty had asked MPs to consider the government draft, but was shouted down by several members of parliament.
Agaty later said the government would submit notes on parliament’s bill but there was no “conflict” with parliament and Speaker Ali Abdelaal welcomed the government’s amendments.
Rights groups have repeatedly criticized leaked drafts of the government’s bill but say parliament’s version is much more stringent, including penalties of up to five years in jail and fines of up to 1 million Egyptian pounds ($65,573).
“The government bill is liberal compared to this bill,” said Zaree. “It is an insult to the constitution.”
Egypt’s constitution guarantees the right to form NGOs without prior approval but the bill allows authorities to dissolve groups within a month of their creation if found to practice “banned activities” and introduces a 10,000 Egyptian pound license fee.
NGOs 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 year when a court in September approved a freeze on the assets of five human rights activists and three NGOs accused of receiving foreign funds.
Additional reporting by Nashat Hamdy; Editing by Janet Lawrence