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Freedom of Association Under Threat - Egypt

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 21 November 2008
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom of Association Under Threat - Egypt, 21 November 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/492a751728.html [accessed 18 November 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) uses judicial measures and intimidation to curtail political dissent and the exposure of human rights abuses. The Emergency Law that has been in place almost continuously since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war virtually guarantees that abuses remain unpunished. The government of President Hosni Mubarak, who took office following the 1981 assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat and was reelected in the country's first multicandidate presidential election in 2005, continues to crack down on opposition groups and critics. Among other instances of repression, authorities arrested as many as 1,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition movement, between March 2006 and March 2007. The NDP further consolidated its authority in March 2007 by successfully passing a referendum that enshrines aspects of the Emergency Law in the constitution. Among other provisions, the amendments blunted judicial oversight of elections and confirmed a ban on religion-based political parties.

Freedom of Association

Although Article 55 of Egypt's 1971 constitution guarantees freedom of association, this right is heavily restricted in practice. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) face burdensome registration requirements and other regulations, as well as harsh penalties for violations. NGO activities are currently governed by Law 84/2002 on Nongovernmental Organizations (Law 84), which allows for continued government control over the associational sphere. The measure was enacted without substantial consultation between the government and civil society. Law 84 grants the Ministry of Social Affairs the authority to regulate the associational sector and allows the minister to dissolve NGOs by decree. All nonprofit groups with 10 or more members are required to register with the Ministry of Social Affairs; failure to do so may result in criminal penalties of up to one year in prison for a group's members. NGOs, particularly those involved in human rights advocacy, are frequently denied registration, and they bear the legal burden when filing a court case to dispute the decision. NGOs that are unable to register often continue to operate, although they face the threat of closure and are not eligible for the benefits available to registered NGOs, such as tax breaks and discounts on utilities.

Article 11 of Law 84 prevents NGOs from engaging in politics, trade union affairs, or any other activities that may threaten national unity or violate public order. Furthermore, the Ministry of Social Affairs is empowered to determine whether an NGO's activities are illegal, and members face criminal rather than civil penalties for violating the law. NGOs are required to obtain permission from the Ministry of Social Affairs before forming a legal affiliation with a non-Egyptian organization. The ministry also has the power to dismiss a fledgling group's prospective board members, and NGOs must submit the minutes of annual meetings to the ministry.

Laws governing the financing of NGOs leave human rights organizations vulnerable to punishment on political grounds. Organizations are required to notify the Ministry of Social Affairs prior to the use of funds from local sources, and Article 17 of Law 84 also requires that they obtain permission before receiving foreign funds. Moreover, NGOs must provide authorities with a detailed accounting of their expenditures and income, including donations. According to an April 2007 article by Mohamed Agati in the International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law, NGOs that receive or distribute funds in violation of this rule are subject to closure and fines as high as $4,000, and their members may face up to six months in prison.

The government generally allows international NGOs to operate in the country. In 2005, for example, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) established offices in Egypt. In June 2006, however, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs forced these organizations to halt operations while their registration was pending. According to the U.S. State Department, they were still not registered by the end of 2007.

During 2007, several NGOs were closed for violating laws on freedom of association. On March 29, the authorities closed the Cairo headquarters and the Naj Hamadi and Mahalla branches of the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services (CTUWS), an organization that educates workers about their rights and reports on labor issues. The group was accused of provoking illegal strikes. The CTUWS has been repeatedly denied registration as an NGO and has consequently been listed as a civil company since 1990. In August 2007, the government once again rejected the organization's application on security grounds. Separately, on September 8 the authorities closed the Association for Human Rights Legal Aid (AHRLA), a local group that provides assistance to torture victims, on charges that they had used unauthorized foreign funds. According to AHRLA staff, officials had repeatedly stonewalled their request for permission to use the foreign funds.

Members of NGOs also faced intimidation and arrest because of their work. On October 12, 2007, a court sentenced the CTUWS's general coordinator, Kamal Abbas, and his lawyer, Mohamed Helmy, to a year in prison on charges of defamation and slander following a story in the CTUWS's newsletter about a possible corruption case involving an NDP member.

Worker Rights

Although Article 56 of the constitution guarantees the right to unionize, labor rights in Egypt are heavily restricted. Workers are not required to join a union, according to the U.S. State Department. However, all unions must join one of the country's 23 official industrial federations. Those federations in turn are required to join the NDP-affiliated Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), which controls elections for trade union leaders. Unions cannot organize in firms with fewer than 50 employees. Government intervention in unions' administrative and financial matters is common. The 2003 Unified Labor Law does, however, provide for collective bargaining, and negotiations may be started by any of the concerned parties.

Theoretically, the right to strike is also protected by the law, but strikes are not permitted in practice. To gain approval for a strike, trade union leaders are required to give 10 days' notice and secure approval from two-thirds of the ETUF's board of directors. Strikes are prohibited during mediation and while collective bargaining agreements are still valid, and sectors that are deemed vital to national security or service provision are barred from striking altogether. Such sectors include transportation and bakeries, even though these fall outside the International Labor Organization's definition of essential sectors.

Although there were no authorized strikes in 2007, unauthorized strikes have been common in recent years, since most workers have yet to benefit from the growth fueled by economic liberalization. During 2007, workers in several sectors went on strike to demand improved wages; the government's response was a mixture of intimidation and acquiescence to the workers' demands. When over 20,000 workers at a textile factory in Mahalla al-Kubra mounted a strike in late September, the factory's board filed a complaint that the strike had hurt profits, and police detained five strike leaders for a day.

Freedom of Assembly

Article 54 of the constitution guarantees citizens the right to hold public meetings, processions, and gatherings "within the limits of the law." However, permission from the Ministry of the Interior is required and generally denied. Public gatherings that do occur draw large deployments of riot police. The law guarantees the right to private assembly without the need for prior notification, but this right is occasionally restricted in practice. Furthermore, the Emergency Law bans activities such as blocking traffic and distributing leaflets and posters.

Throughout 2007, authorities restricted public assembly as part of a larger effort to limit political expression and criticism of the government. In keeping with its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the government banned the movement's annual meeting. On March 25, police briefly detained 17 protesters demonstrating against the referendum that incorporated aspects of the Emergency Law into the constitution. Police broke up a July 22 protest by Bedouins in Rafah against a possible government plan to clear buildings in the vicinity of the Gaza Strip. Eight days later, police forcefully dispersed Bedouins demonstrating against the government's refusal to recognize their claims to land ownership and the detention without charge of their community's members; 15 protesters were injured in the violence. The Ministry of the Interior also prevented some meetings held on private property and at universities, including an instance in October when police blocked students from gathering on campuses during student elections.

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