Egypt: Margins of Repression: State Limits on Nongovernmental Organization Activism


Association – First of two basic legal structures of non-profit groups. A membership organization with an elected board of directors. (jam'iyya)

Board of Trustees – Governing body of civic foundation (majlis al-umana') Members are appointed.

Board of Directors – Governing body of an association. (majlis al-idara). Members are elected.

Civil Company – A form of entity permitted by the courts under Egyptian civil law. (sharika madaniyya)

Civic Foundation – Second of two basic legal structures of non-profit groups. Has appointed board of directors and requires start-up capital (mu'assassa ahliyya)

Law Company – An entity governed by law 17 of 1983, the law of the legal profession. (sharikat muhama)

MISA – Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs, the governmental body responsible for registering and enforcing compliance of most Egyptian NGOs.

NGO – Nongovernmental organization, used here to describe all forms of civil society groups. (munadhamat ghair hukumiyya)

Process servermahdar

State Council – State administrative court (majlis al-dawla)

I. Summary

The government of Egypt has severely restricted freedom of association for more than four decades. Although the Egyptian constitution protects the right to freedom of association, the government has used a complex set of interlocking laws, decrees, and emergency powers to stifle the exercise that right. The ability to establish political parties and independent trade unions, for instance, is highly controlled. Although talk of reform has gained pace since the end of the 1990s, at the time of writing few tangible steps had taken place.

These restrictions have stunted Egypt's civil society. Egyptian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have long been burdened by cumbersome laws, an often hostile and inefficient government bureaucracy, and frequent interference by the security forces.1 Nevertheless, NGOs in Egypt have grown in number, scope of activities and impact.2

In June 2003, after forty years of suffocating NGO regulation, a new associations law (Law 84/2002) entered into force. This report discusses the new law's impact on NGOs. It also examines other key barriers to the formation, work, and accountability of Egyptian civil society groups, based on documentation of the difficulties experienced by some thirty groups working in areas ranging from environmental awareness, adult literacy, women's empowerment, support services for child laborers, to human rights advocacy and research.

In some ways, Law 84/2002 is an improvement on the previous NGO law. Yet its provisions – and even more strikingly, the broad and arbitrary way in which it is applied – violate Egypt's international legal obligations to uphold freedom of association. It prohibits political and union-related activity, and allows NGOs to be dissolved by administrative order. It continues a host of intrusive administrative practices that restrict the natural development of civil society organizing activities and provides ample means for political or bureaucratic interference. It entrenches a system in which NGOs are treated as the children of a paternalistic government.

Perhaps the most serious barriers to meaningful freedom of association in Egypt lie outside of Law 84/2002. The first is the role of the powerful security services, which routinely review and reject NGO registrations and scrutinize their leaders, activities, and funding. This role has no legal basis in the associations law. When pressed, these security agencies justify their decisions according to grossly disproportionate interpretations of "public order." The second is the network of interlocking laws, decrees, and restrictions that inhibit the exercise of meaningful political life in Egypt outside of government-approved margins and allow the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs (MISA) to reject, dissolve, or harass any organization that the government holds in disfavor. Egyptian civil society and Egyptian courts repeatedly attempt to widen those margins; the government and security forces strive to hold them back.3

When governments restrict people's ability to speak, meet, and work together, they are wasting a vital source of energy, innovation, and ideas. If people cannot form, run, and fund civil society organizations, then there is little chance of a functioning democracy or equitable, sustainable development.4 Government attitudes and regulation have to help – not hinder – ordinary people to form groups, raise money, and work for the benefit of their fellow citizens.

NGOs should be accountable to funders, clients, and the wider public they serve. Governments do have an interest in ensuring that local laws and standards are met, including ensuring that for-profit ventures do not claim the financial benefits of NGO status. There is, however, a difference between well-designed, transparent accountability mechanisms, and excessive state powers that police and stifle the work, goals, and leadership of civil society organizations. Egypt's laws fall squarely into the latter category.

II. Recommendations

In order to comply with its international obligations regarding freedom of association, the government of Egypt should:

  • Amend Law 84/2002 to ensure that all non-profit groups formed for any legal purpose are allowed to acquire legal personality by.
    • Making registration and membership of NGOs entirely voluntary;
    • Abolishing penalties for participation in unregistered NGOs; and
    • Removing restrictions on the ability to affiliate with other NGOs, whether domestic or foreign.

  • Remove all restrictions on peaceful activities that amount to the exercise of internationally-recognized human rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom to participate in public life by:
    • Amending Article 11 of Law 84/2002 to eliminate its restrictions on political and trade union activities; and
    • Specifying in the amendments that any language on "public order or morals," which also appears in Egypt's Civil Code, should be interpreted in a narrow and proportionate fashion, in conformity with Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the jurisprudence of the U.N. Human Rights Committee.

  • Cease security force vetting of NGO registration requests, founding members, and candidates for board membership. In particular:
    • Remove the government's ability to approve or reject founding members or board members. Associations should not be required to inform the administrative authority in advance of board nominees. Amend Article 34 accordingly; and
    • Remove the government's ability to object to organizational decisions as set out in Article 23.

  • Ensure that any involuntary dissolution of an NGO takes place only by judicial order, and only as a result of the most egregious violations by amending Article 42 to remove the administrative authority's power to dissolve an NGO.
  • Permit receipt of donations or transfers from foreign donors, as long as all foreign exchange and customs laws are satisfied. Amend Article 58 accordingly. In particular:
    • State clearly any restrictions and make all criteria transparent; and
    • Make clear that the absence of a government response to a request for approval of foreign funding within sixty days means that approval has been given.

  • Allow NGOs to work in the thematic and geographical areas of their choosing. Abolish the requirement that NGOs seek permission from the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs (MISA) for working in more than one field of activity or governorate.
  • Review both Law 84/2002 and its executive (implementing) regulations so as to create a reporting system that is less complex, intrusive and burdensome, and abolish provisions that inappropriately prescribe internal governance mechanisms.

In addition, the government should:

  • Remove additional licensing requirements for NGOs to engage in field research, carry out media activities, and publish publications;
  • Ensure that MISA officials are adequately trained and have sufficient resources to carry out their obligations under the NGO law;
  • Ensure that MISA officials enforce a unified set of procedural requirements for NGO registration and reporting procedures; and
  • Establish capitalization requirements for foundations that are uniform and do not represent an unreasonable or arbitrary barrier to their establishment.

III. Background

Egypt has a long history of nongovernmental social activity, traditionally enabled by the Muslim charitable endowment system (waqf). In the aftermath of the 1952 revolution, the government sharply restricted rights relating to freedom of association, expression, and political participation. Anxious to eliminate any possible role for the Muslim Brotherhood, the government used a suffocating legal regime codified in Law 32 of 1964 to subordinate all nongovernmental organizations to government control.5

This legacy of state corporatism has profoundly affected the development of Egyptian civil society. Government-defined boundaries circumscribe civil society spheres of action and expression. To be successful, NGOs must maintain a good a relationship with the state bureaucracy – and individual bureaucrats. One knowledgeable observer who wished to remain unnamed described the situation to Human Rights Watch as follows:

You have to understand: universities and research centers in other societies are independent. That is not the case here. Here they are the second face of the government. The only way we can talk about independent civil society organizations is NGOs and community service organizations...

[NGOs] are all divided. The government takes control by division and segregation and affiliates them to a different minister. Everyone in civil society has a godfather. Even if they're useful, they're corrupt. This is something from the first years of the revolution. Even the Boy Scout movement was completely destroyed.6

As in the rest of the world, civil society activities in Egypt expanded dramatically in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, particularly around the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in 1994. Intense local lobbying led the government in 1998 to announce its intention to reform Law 32/1964, the law of associations. After a consultation process with civil society that NGO activists characterized as "heavily controlled,"7 then-Social Affairs Minister Dr. Mervat Tellawi presented a draft law to the government that, if passed, would have marked a substantive break from past practice. Instead, the draft was substantially altered by the cabinet. This new associations law was enacted but promptly declared unconstitutional.8 The current law of associations (Law 84/2002) was passed hastily on June 3, 2002.9

Law 84/2002 was a missed opportunity. Although it eased some of the worst restrictions of the 1964 law, it also eliminated some of the improvements codified in the 1999 law. Overall, it created a legal regime that gives the state excessive latitude to dissolve, reject, or slowly choke any organization financially, should it wish to do so. Government corruption and inefficiency exacerbate the intrusive bureaucratic requirements. Worse still is the significant but unwritten role of the security services, which routinely reject applications to register new groups or candidates for board member elections, despite having no legal basis for doing so. Even groups that have successfully registered continue to endure close monitoring and sometimes harassment from security service agents.

Domestic Protections and Realities

A powerful network of legal and practical restrictions limits freedom of association in Egypt. Understanding this framework is vital to any assessment of civil society's operational environment and the NGO law.

In principle, the Egyptian constitution protects the right to: freedom of speech (Article 47); freedom of the press (Article 48); literary and scientific research (Article 49); peaceable assembly (Article 54); to form association (Article 55); and to create unions and professional syndicates (Article 56). The Egyptian Constitutional Court has often upheld these constitutional rights, as has the State Council (majlis al-dawla, or administrative court).

In reality, however, the government has severely undermined these rights through its long-term use of restrictive legislation. Since the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat in 1981, President Husni Mubarak has ruled Egypt with emergency powers.10 These powers have created an environment where the authorities abuse fundamental human rights on a wide scale and with impunity, and where they adopt arbitrary measures to silence their critics in the name of safeguarding national security.11 The wide-ranging and extensive powers given to the security forces under the state of emergency enable them to arrest at will people suspected of being a threat to national security and public order absent any showing of probable cause. Such persons can be held in detention without charge for prolonged periods. Similarly, censorship of the press can be imposed and newspapers ordered to shut down if the authorities decide that such measures are required for reasons of national security or public safety. Under Article 80(d) of the penal code, individuals can be sentenced from six months to five years for disseminating damaging information abroad.12 Strikes, public meetings, and election rallies are prohibited: many have been dispersed violently.13

The state of emergency has also made it possible for the authorities to refer civilian defendants to military courts or to exceptional state security courts, in effect creating a parallel court system that lacks elemental due process protections. Political activists, including those who were not involved in any violent activity, have been tried before military courts that did not meet minimum fair trial standards, and charged with acts that amount to peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly.

For example, in April 2003 Ashraf Ibrahim Marzuq was arrested and held for three and half months before being charged before the Emergency Higher State Security Court with being on the steering committee of a "revolutionary socialist group," "holding and possessing publications disseminating advocacy and propaganda for the group's purposes," and "sending false information to foreign bodies – foreign human rights organizations – which include, contrary to the truth, violations of human rights within the country, the content of which weakened the position of the state."14 Ibrahim was eventually acquitted on March 11, 2004.

Since 1998 two prominent human rights activists have been arrested on the basis of Military Decree No. 4 of 1992, which lays down prison sentences for several offences that encompass the internationally protected exercise of freedom of association and expression. In 1998, Hafez Abu Saeda, secretary general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, was accused of accepting funds from a foreign donor without prior authorization after publishing a report on torture and other abuses related to the government's handing of a Muslim-Coptic disturbance in Upper Egypt. The case did not go to trial. Dr. Saadeddin Ibrahim, along with his co-workers at the Ibn Khaldun Center and the Hoda Association, an affiliated organization that promotes women's voting rights, were arrested in June 2000 and later convicted on several charges, including accepting foreign funds without permission and disseminating false information about Egypt. After being sentenced to seven years' imprisonment on July 31, 2002, the verdict against Ibrahim and his co-defendants was quashed on December 3, 2002.15

The government's dominant role in public life is reinforced by other legislation as well. Heavy restrictions on trade unions and political parties date from the Nasserist era. The Trade Union Law establishes a central pyramidal trade union structure, under which all trade unions are compelled to affiliate with the only legally recognized labor federation, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation. Union elections and other matters are supervised solely by the Ministry of Manpower. All collective bargaining mechanisms are subject to trade union approval, and trade union membership is compulsory for all public sector employees.16 The Press Law (Law 96/1996) imposes custodial sentences for offences such as slander, insult, and libel. In its quest to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood and other critics, the government also intervened extensively in the elections and governance of professional associations in the mid to late 1990s, including at one point the sequestration of the Egyptian Bar Association.

Overview of Law 84/2002

Law 84/2002 establishes two main forms of non-profit organizations: associations (jam'iyyat) and civic foundations (mu'assassat ahliyya). All non-profit groups of ten members or more working in social development activities must register with the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs (MISA) or face criminal penalties, including up to one year's imprisonment (article 76). A group of less than ten persons can neither apply for association status nor carry out volunteer activities. Non-profit groups working in other fields are answerable to other ministries: for example, the Ministry of Health regulates non-profit medical clinics.

In a welcome development, the new associations law has widened the scope of permissible NGO activities, including human rights activism.17 In theory, the law also allows NGOs to work in more than one field of activity, though in practice they must seek MISA permission before doing so.

Yet the scope of permissible NGO activities remains severely limited. Article 11 of Law 84/2002 forbids groups from pursuing the goals of "threatening national unity" or "violating public order or morals," As this report will demonstrate, this language echoes that of international human rights law but the Egyptian government's application of these concepts is broad and excessive in ways that are grossly inconsistent with international standards. Egyptian laws, for instance, effectively prohibit independent political or trade union activities.18 These prohibitions are defined further in the executive (implementing) regulations (articles 24-25). The regulations state that groups may not undertake or fund election-related activities, or represent employees in discussions with employers. In practice, Article 11 has given the security forces and government officials unacceptably wide powers to harass activists and dissolve civil society groups (see below.) The government may use Article 11 as a basis to block an NGO's registration; to reject particular persons as founders or board candidates; or to dissolve a group and seize its assets.19

When a group applies for registration, it undergoes an official inspection and lodges the required forms at its local MISA office. According to NGO activists, applicants were typically asked to fill out the application in pencil and then go through it with a MISA official who instructs them what to change and what to keep. The ministry is required to respond by registered letter within sixty days. If a group's objectives include any activities MISA considers banned by Article 11, the ministry may refuse the group permission to register, although it must give reasons for its decision in writing (Article 6). The ministry also has the powers to object to a group's bylaws or founders (Article 8).

If more than sixty days have passed without an official MISA response, then a group can assume to be registered, although in practice it is impossible to function without an official registration number. Registered groups are entitled to significant tax privileges, as well as discounted telephone and utilities charges (Article 13). Because registration is compulsory, non-registered groups are forbidden from conducting any activity.

NGOs that have been refused permission to register may bring a complaint before the State Council (majlis al-dawla, or administrative court). Rejection of registration is the only circumstance in which the law allows an NGO to go straight to the administrative court. Registered NGOs that have disputes with the ministry may take complaints to a three-person dispute committee. If the committee has not decided the issue within sixty days, the NGO may take a case to the administrative court (Article 7). Complaints over dissolution, board membership and other issues must also be taken to the dispute resolution committee before resorting to the administrative court.20

Under Law 153 of 1999, later declared unconstitutional, the ministry had to go to court if it wished to reject the application of an association. Under Law 84, the NGO must initiate any court involvement. This puts the burden on the fledgling NGO and thus is a step backwards.

The new law limits the ministry's previously absolute power to reject, amalgamate, and otherwise control organizations.21 However, it still provides ample means for governmental officials to intervene in internal governance – including the power to dissolve organizations by decree. Article 42 gives the minister unacceptably wide grounds on which to dissolve groups, including receiving foreign funds or affiliating with foreign organizations without permission, conduct of political or trade union activities, and violations of the law, public order or morals. Interestingly, the minister's power to dissolve organizations had been eliminated from the 1999 law of associations, law 153/1999, which specified that organizations could be dissolved only as a result of a judicial order.22

Another fundamental problem is the ministry's power to object to an association's proposed board members (Article 34). If an NGO is electing new board members, it must notify MISA of the nominees at least sixty days before the elections. The ministry, and in fact any "interested party," have the power to notify the NGO that certain candidates cannot be nominated, although the grounds for such action are not stated clearly.23 MISA does not have the same ability to object to the leadership of foundations, making the latter a more popular organizational structure.24

The new law no longer stipulates what color inks NGOs must use, but it does specify NGO governance and administrative procedures with a significant level of detail.25 MISA defines the number of board members and their terms of office, procedures for annual general meetings (AGMs) and quorum requirements, frequency of executive committee meetings and procedures, fundraising requirements, organizational record-keeping and so on (Executive Regulations Articles 81-90). In particular, organizations must provide MISA with advance notice as well as minutes of annual general meetings. MISA must approve invitations to conferences before the members of an association can participate. MISA can itself convene an NGO's AGM if it considers it to be necessary. MISA also has the power to object to any organizational decision it considers illegal; the law does not indicate that it must explain the basis for its objection (Article 23). Groups may not work in more than one governorate, or beyond the limits of the governorate in which their main office is located, without seeking MISA permission.26

Crucially, the ministry also has the power to block an organization's funding. The law's ambiguous language on funding is clarified by the executive (implementing) regulations. If they notify MISA, organizations may receive funds from local sources, and from foreign organizations that operate in Egypt under agreement with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But every grant from external sources must be reviewed and approved by the minister, who is officially required to respond within sixty days (Article 58). A group must hold any foreign funds it has received in escrow until it has received MISA approval. A group may become affiliated with non-Egyptian organizations if the minister is informed and does not object (Article 16).

The law establishes the right of any ten organizations working in the same field to join and form a union. In practice, however, those organizations that want to form a union must submit the names to MISA, which then groups organizations in unions corresponding to what the ministry understands to be their chief activity or activities. Such authority belongs with the organizations concerned, not with the state.

The law also establishes a General Union of Associations and Civic Foundations (Article 69). Headquartered in Cairo, the union is designed as a government-organized representative body for all NGOs. Although the union has the potential to play a positive role, it also constitutes an additional and unneeded layer of state-designed bureaucracy. One third of its board members are government-appointed. The law states that union representatives must be consulted on a variety of issues, including government orders for NGO dissolution. A member of the union also sits on the three-person dispute resolution committee established by Article 7.

IV. Egypt's International Legal Obligations

The right to freedom of association, and the associated rights to freedom of expression and assembly, is well established in international law. Egypt has obligations under several international treaties to uphold these rights, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the African Charter on Human and People's Rights (ACHPR).27 Egypt is also a member of the International Labor Organization, and thereby obliged to respect and promote the principles of free association and collective bargaining.

The right to freedom of association may be restricted, but only on certain prescribed grounds and only when particular circumstances apply. According to Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights:

(1) Everyone shall have the right to freedom of association with others, including to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interest.

(2) No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those which are prescribed by law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others...

The restrictions specified in Article 22 (2) should be interpreted narrowly. For example, terms such as "national security" and "public safety" refer to situations involving an immediate and violent threat to the nation. Restrictions can only be imposed if they are prescribed by existing legislation, and meet the standard of being "necessary in a democratic society." This implies that the limitation must respond to a pressing public need and be oriented along the basic democratic values of pluralism and tolerance. "Necessary" restrictions must also be proportionate: that is, carefully balanced against the specific reason for the restriction being put in place.28 The U.N. Human Rights Committee has repeatedly highlighted the importance of proportionality.29 In applying a limitation, a government should use no more restrictive means than is absolutely required.

Additional protections are contained in Article 8 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which requires states to uphold the right to form trade unions and to join the unions of one's choice. Egypt's practice, the law of associations, and the trade union law all contravene the principles of the ICESCR.30 They also violate the principles of the African Charter on Human and People's Rights, which guarantees the right to free expression in Article 9 (2), and freedom of association in Article 11.

The international covenants employ similar language to describe the rights of free expression and assembly. Article 19(3) of the ICCPR, for instance, states that the exercise of the right to freedom of expression

carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary: (a) for respect of the rights or reputations of others; (b) for the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.

The lawfulness of government restrictions on the possession and distribution of pamphlets as well as other restrictions on the dissemination of information by NGOs and their members are subject to the same considerations of proportionality and necessity. Thus procurement and dissemination of military secrets may be prohibited, but restrictions on freedom of expression to protect national security "are permissible only in serious cases of political or military threat to the entire nation."31 Since restrictions based on protection of public order have the potential to undermine completely freedom of expression, "particularly strict requirements must be placed on the necessity (proportionality) of a given statutory restriction."32

Article 21 of the ICCPR recognizes "the right of peaceful assembly," and states:

No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interest of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health and morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

Prohibitions or restrictions on freedom of assembly based on national security "are permissible only in serious cases of political or military threat to the entire nation." Prohibitions or restrictions on public order grounds "must...always remain the exception... The discourse of conflicting ideas is an essential feature of democracy."33

The different U.N. committees responsible for monitoring Egypt's compliance with its treaty obligations have several times highlighted the government's need to ease restrictions on civil society, as has the ILO.34 In its November 2002 examination of Egypt's ICCPR implementation, the U.N. Human Rights Committee stated:

The Committee is concerned at the restrictions placed by Egyptian legislation and practice on the foundation of nongovernmental organizations and the activities of such organizations such as efforts to secure foreign funding, which require prior approval from the authorities on pain of criminal penalties (art. 22 of the Covenant).

The State party should review its legislation and practice in order to enable nongovernmental organizations to undertake their attributions without obstacles which are inconsistent with provisions of article 22 of the Covenant, such as prior approval, control of funding and administrative dissolution.35

On December 9, 1998, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the "Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms" – commonly referred to as the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. Article 5 of the declaration states that all people have the right to assemble peacefully, to form, join or participate in NGOs, to communicate with NGOs. Article 6 states all individuals have the right to know, seek, or obtain information about all human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as the right to freely publish, discuss or otherwise impart such information, knowledge, and views. The Ministerial Conference on Human Rights held by the Organization of African Unity in Mauritius in April 1999 urged African governments to take appropriate steps to implement the Declaration.

The Special Representative of the Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders requested an invitation to visit Egypt in July 2002, and renewed the request in 2004. The request was still outstanding as of May 17, 2005.36

VI. Conclusion

There are many concrete steps the government can take to remedy the unjustified restrictions on NGOs and uphold the rights to freedom of association and expression in Egypt. Most importantly, the security forces' role in reviewing NGO registrations, founders, and board candidates should end. The MISA NGO directorate should standardize its registration procedures, minimize incentives to corruption, and ensure that staff members are thoroughly trained in the requirements and goals of the Law 84/2002. Finally, the associations law must be amended to minimize the bureaucratic burden, and remove the government's wide powers to control, censor, and dissolve civil society groups.

Civil society is a major source of innovation in services and thinking in many countries of the world. Egyptian civil society groups have the potential to make a significant and enduring contribution to the national development and well-being. It is in every Egyptian's interest that they be helped, not hindered, to do so.


Miranda Sissons, a consultant for Human Rights Watch, researched and wrote this report. Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East division, edited the report. Joanne Mariner, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division, and Widney Brown, deputy program director, provided the legal and program office reviews respectively. Alicyn Cooley, an Everett Intern with the Middle East division, provided research assistance. Tarek Radwan, associate in the Middle East division, and Andrea Holley, manager of outreach and publications, prepared the report for publication.

Human Rights Watch would like to thank Hossam Bahgat, Aida Seif al-Dawla, Hala Shukrallah, and Ragia Omran, who read and commented on drafts of this report.

Appendix: Human Rights Watch Letter to Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs

September 14, 2004

H.E. Dr. Amina El-Guindi
Minister of Social Affairs
19 al-Maraghli Street
Cairo, Egypt

Your Excellency,

Human Rights Watch is an international nongovernmental organization that monitors human rights developments in over 80 countries. As part of our regular research, Human Rights Watch is currently examining the status and implementation of Egypt's Law 84/2002.

As part of our research, we faxed your office a letter on July 8, 2004, asking for information on the law and the Ministry's important role in its implementation. We regret that, to our knowledge, we have not yet received an answer. For your convenience, I have attached a list of the questions from our July 8 letter on the following page.

We wish to ensure that our materials accurately represent the Ministry's activities on this issue. We would welcome a reply at your earliest possible convenience. In order to reach us in time to be incorporated into our materials, your reply must reach us no later than September 30.

In addition, Ms Miranda Sissons, a consultant for Human Rights Watch, will be in visiting Cairo from September 18 to September 30. I would be most grateful if you or a representative responsible for implementing Law 84/2002 would be able to meet with Ms Sissons on September 27 or 28. Ms Sissons can be contacted on (02) 735 0815. She will contact your office regarding possible meeting arrangements on arrival.

We thank you in advance for your assistance, and assure you that any initiatives HRW takes regarding Law 84/2002 will take account of any information you are able to provide.


Sarah Leah Whitson

Executive Director

cc Ibrahim El-Toukhy, Director, Central Department for NGOs, Social Affairs Ministry

H.E. Ambassador Nabil Fahmy, Embassy of Egypt, Washington, DC.

Summary: Information Requested by Human Rights Watch in our letter of July 8, 2004.

1. A list of the organizations that have successfully registered since Law 84/2002 entered into force.

2. A list of organizations that have attempted to register but have been denied permission or ruled ineligible, including specific reasons in each case of refusal.

3. The number of appeals made by NGOs denied registration and their status; how the Complaints Committee established to arbitrate disputes between NGOs and the Ministry has ruled on these appeals, and if the appeals are being or have been considered by any government body.

4. What procedures does the Ministry use to determine when an organization's activities violate Article 11 of Law 84/2002? In particular, how does the Ministry decide if an organization's activities are "political"?

5. Have Ministry representatives been monitoring the activities of organizations registered under Law 84/2002? If so, has the Ministry imposed any administrative or disciplinary measures on any registered NGO? If so, please provide the NGO names and the reasons for such measures.

6. Have any organizations have been cited by the Ministry for having received funds from abroad without permission, as per article 17? If so, which?

7. Has the Ministry has objected to members of NGO governing boards (as per article 34). If so, for which organizations did it object, and for what reasons?

8. Has the Ministry denied registration or otherwise penalized any NGO for being linked to an international organization (as per article 16)? If so, which organizations have been penalized?

9. Has the Ministry has dissolved any NGOs, frozen assets, or confiscated property of any NGO (as per article 42). If so, on what grounds?

10. Are any Egyptian civil organizations exempt from registering under the new law?

11. Must organizations that were formerly registered under Law 153 of 1999 re-register under Law 84? Are all organizations that received formal recognition from the Ministry before 2002 required to re-register?

12. It is our understanding that certain organizations (such as the New Woman Foundation and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights) were initially denied registration for "security reasons." There is, so far as we are aware, no basis in Law 84/2002 for denying an NGO registration on such grounds. Please clarify the reasons why these organizations were initially denied registration.

13. Please explain whether Law 84/2002 provides the Ministry of the Interior with any role in advising or deciding NGO registration.

14. It is our understanding that Civil Watch for Human Rights recently received a letter from the Ministry of Social Affairs that revoked its registration on behalf of the "General Administration for Security." Is this correct? If so, we would like to know the basis under Law 84/2002 for the role of the "General Administration for Security" and would appreciate if you could clarify the General Administration's structure and responsibilities.

15. Does the "General Administration of Security" play a formal or informal role in determining whether an NGO may register under Law 84/2002?

[1] In this study the "NGO" and "group" are used to describe all Egyptian civil society organizations. The terms "association" and "civil foundation" describe the two main forms of legal structure Egyptian NGOs may possess under law 84/2002.

[2] Some 4,000 groups were registered in 1964. Forty years later, most Egyptian commentators put the figure as at least 17,000. This is smaller than in many countries of comparable size. (Explanatory Memorandum of the Law No. 32 for 1964, reproduced in the Middle East Library for Economic Services Law No. 32/1964 Concerning the Private Societies and Organizations/Qanun al-Jam'iyyat wa al-Mu'assassat al-Khassa, With Its Executive Regulations, April 2002.)

[3] A third extra-legal barrier to the meaningful exercise of freedom of association, not addressed in this report, is the government's ability to use its influence over religious and other institutions, including major media, to encourage popular hostility toward NGOs and individual activists, often on the grounds that because they receive international assistance they therefore act on behalf of Western powers. In mid-March 2005, for example, preachers in a number of Cairo mosques, including several of the largest, used their Friday sermons to denounce Negad al-Bora'i, a prominent defense lawyer and activist who heads the Group for Democratic Development, and Saadeddin Ibrahim, head of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, for "treason" and "espionage" because their groups had been named as recipients of U.S. government democracy-promotion grants..(See Lina 'Atallah, "Preachers and parliamentarians condemn NGOs for receiving U.S. funds for democracy work," Cairo Magazine Website (, received by Human Rights Watch in e-mail dated April 5, 2005, from News from Democracy Egypt.A source in the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which manages mosque affairs, insisted that these were "individual tendencies" rather than "an official stance." The Ibn Khaldun Center, in a March 28, 2005, statement, estimated that the total foreign funding received by all Egyptian NGOs amounted to perhaps 1 percent of the foreign assistance provided to President Mubarak's government, "the major recipient of foreign funding in Egypt."

[4] UNDP Regional Bureau for Arab States, Arab Human Development Report 2002: Creating Opportunities for Future Generations (New York, 2002), pp. 103-120; and UNDP, Human Development Report 2002: Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World (New York, 2002), pp. 51-63.

[5] For example, under Law 32 of 1964, NGOs were allowed to work only in one of a group of twelve fields. Government officials could reject a group's creation, its board candidates, and board decision-making for unspecified reasons. Officials could dissolve or amalgamate any groups at any time. A notorious example of politically motivated dissolution is the 1982 closure of the Arab Women's Solidarity Association, led by prominent feminist Dr. Nawal al-Sa'dawi. See Human Rights Watch [Middle East Watch], "Egypt: Court Upholds Closure of Women's Organization," available at

[6] Human Rights Watch interview, name withheld, Cairo, September 27, 2004.

[7] Dr. Seif al-Dawla is a founding member of several NGOs, including the Egyptian Association against Torture and the Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.

[8] The Constitutional Court ruled law 153 of 1999 unconstitutional in May 2000 (case number 153 of Judicial Year 6, issued on June 3, 2000). The court found it had been issued without seeking the required approval of Egypt's upper house of parliament, the Shura Council. The court also found that many of the law's provisions violated the right to freedom of association established by article 55 of the Egyptian constitution.

[9] Law Number 84 of 2002, published in the Official Gazette – Number 22 – Supplement (A) June 5, 2002. For details of the preceding parliamentary debate, see Negad al-Bora'i, Al-maqsala wa al-tanur: Hurrayyat al-ta'bir fi Misr 2002-2003 al-mushkilat wa al-hulul, (Cairo: The United Group, 2004), pp. 495-502.

[10] Including the Emergency Law 162 of 1958, the Anti-Terror Law 97 of 1992, and related military decrees. The Egyptian parliament has successively approved each renewal of the state of emergency. The current state of emergency is due to expire in 2006.

[11] The authorities announced in 2003 that the Higher State Security Courts had been abolished, but the Higher Emergency State Security Court remained intact. For background see Human Rights Watch The State of Egypt vs. Free Expression, Vol. 14 No. 1(E), January 2002; Amnesty International Egypt: Muzzling Civil Society, September 2000 AI Index MDE 12/21/00.

[12] For a fuller discussion of the impact of Article 80(d), see The State of Egypt vs. Free Expression, p. 13.

[13] See Human Rights Watch, Egypt: Security Forces Abuse of Anti-War Demonstrators, Vol. 15 No. 10(E), November 2003.

[14] Human Rights Watch, Egypt: Security Forces Abuses of Anti-War Demonstrators, p. 11.

[15] Human Rights Watch, The State of Egypt vs. Free Expression.

[16]The ILO has informed the government of Egypt repeatedly that these infringe workers' freedom of association. See CEACR: Individual Observation concerning Convention No. 87, Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize, 1948 Egypt (ratification: 1957) Published: 2004. Available online, accessed December 4, 2004.

[17] Under Law 32 of 1964, NGOs were previously limited to working in only one of twelve fields; the twelfth field, human rights, was added by ministerial decree in 2000. The expanded field of permissible NGO activities is set out in Article 48 of the executive (implementing) regulations of Law 84/2002.

[18] The relevant language reads: is also forbidden to include amongst an organization's goals the performance of the following activities:

1. Forming military or paramilitary detachments or formations.

2. Threatening national unity, violating public order or morals, or calling for discrimination between citizens because of race, origin, color, language, religion, or creed.

3. The exercise of any political activity shall be restricted to political parties in accordance to the parties law, and exercising any unionist activity shall be restricted to unions in accordance to the trade unions law.

[19] Articles 8, 34 and 42.

[20] Throughout the process of registration and appeals, the founding members must pay rent for the premises of an as-yet unauthorized organization. Aida Seif al-Dawla, a founding member of the Egyptian Association against Torture, told Human Rights Watch that in the case of the Egyptian Association against Torture this has been going on for more than two years (e-mail communication from Aida Seif al-Dawla, May 4, 2005).

[21] See, for example, articles 29, 57, and 79 of Law 32/1964, justified on the grounds of coordination, prevention of overlap, and security: "it was imperative that the efforts which are exerted in the field of social service shall be subject to sound planning within the framework of a comprehensive general plan to be supervised by the State, which shall direct it and control its execution." Explanatory Memorandum of the Law No. 32 for 1964, p. 35.

[22] Article 62, Law No. 153 of the Year 1999, The Non-Governmental Organizations Law/Qanun al jam'iyyat wa al mu'assassat al-ahliyya, published in the Official Gazette (al-jarida al-rasmiyya) – Issue 21 – Supplement (B) – May 27, 1999.

[23] Article 34 and Executive (Implementing) Regulations Article 81. According to Article 34, the administrative authority or any interest party can reject candidates for "non-fulfillment of the nomination criteria." The only specific criteria are contained in Article 33, which states every nominee must be in possession of his or her civil rights – that is, over the age of 21.

[24] Instead of holding board elections, the founding members of a foundation instead appoint a board of trustees (article 60).

[25] The implementing regulations of law 32/1964 required that corrections to organization registers be made in red ink.

[26] Executive (Implementing) Regulations, Article 48. There are twenty-six governorates.

[27] Egypt ratified the ICCPR and ICESCR on January 14, 1982, and the ACHPR on March 20, 1984.

[28] Manfred Nowak, UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: CCPR Commentary (Kehl am Rein: N.P. Engel, 1993), pp. 386-387.

[29] The U.N. Human Rights Committee, see for example Vladimir Petrovich Laptesevich v. Belarus. Communication 780/1997 of the Human Rights Committee. See also Richard Fries, "The Legal Environment of Civil Society," The Global Civil Society Yearbook 2003, Chapter 9, Center for the Study of Global Governance, London School of Economics, 2003.

[30] See note 17 above.

[31] Nowak, op. cit., p. 355.

[32] Ibid. p. 357.

[33] Ibid. pp. 380 -81.

[34] See CEACR: Individual Observation concerning Convention No. 87, Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise, 1948 Egypt.

[35] Concluding Observations of the U.N. Human Rights Committee, Egypt, U.N. Doc. CCPR/CO/76/EGY (2002), para. 21. The U.N. Human Rights Committee made similar comments in 1993 after its preceding examination of Egypt's progress. In its concluding observations on Egypt's first periodic report, the U.N. Committee for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights stated "[t]he Committee is deeply concerned that law 153 of 1999 (Law on Civil Associations and Institutions, popularly called the "NGO Law") does not conform to article 8 of the Covenant and contradicts article 55 of the 1971 Egyptian Constitution affirming the right of citizens to form associations, and gives the Government control over the right of NGOs to manage their own activities, including seeking external funding." Conclusions and Recommendations of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Egypt, U.N. Doc. E/C.12/1/Add.44 (2000), available online at Accessed December 4, 2004.

[36] E-mail response to Human Rights Watch from Chloe M. Baszanger, desk officer for the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders, Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, May 17, 2005.

This 45-page report discusses the impact of the law governing associations, Law 84/2002, which came into effect in June 2003. The report concludes that the most serious barrier to meaningful freedom of association in Egypt is the extra-legal role of the security services. Human Rights Watch documented numerous cases where the security services rejected NGO registrations, decided who could serve on NGO boards of directors, harassed NGO activists, and interfered with donations reaching the groups.

This 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.