CAIRO – Egypt's president sent a bill that would regulate non-governmental organizations to the country's interim parliament on Monday after months of criticism by rights groups concerned about stifling of their activities.
The text of the bill presented to the Islamist-dominated Shura Council was not made public, but a top presidential aide said that Mohammed Morsi's legal team took into consideration concerns that had been raised by local and international groups.
NGOs allege past versions of the bill were an attempt to regulate the work of civil society by with murky, loosely defined oversight by security agencies of their work. One concern has been that security forces might be allowed to inspect the raw material gathered by human rights groups that collect sensitive testimony from witnesses.
Morsi said in a statement Monday that the bill is aimed at committing NGOs to the principles of transparency and striking a balance with "the openness of Egypt" after the uprising that toppled longtime President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Under Mubarak, local and foreign NGOs were not allowed to align themselves with political parties, involvement in politics was tightly restricted and elections widely rigged.
The United States criticized earlier versions as "a step backwards."
Presidential aides said that under the proposed bill, civil society groups receiving foreign funding will not be allowed to support Egyptian parties or candidates. On the other hand, broad voter awareness activities would be permitted.
It was not clear what other restrictions might be imposed on foreign funding for local groups and the work of international NGOs. Those groups have been regarded with suspicion by Egyptian leaders, who have regarded some of their work as foreign interference in domestic affairs.
Under military rule that followed Mubarak's ouster, the Egyptian government shut down several U.S.-funded NGOs and charged some of its activists, including 16 Americans, with criminal offenses, setting off a prolonged diplomatic crisis between the two countries. The Americans left the country and were later tried in absentia.
Presidential aide Khaled Al-Qazzaz said the new bill does not require that security officials be part of a "steering committee" that will decide much of the fate of NGOs. Al-Qazzaz was speaking to reporters along with two other presidential aides before Morsi submitted the bill to the Shura Council for debate.
Removed from the latest draft is wording that said NGO's would be banned from receiving foreign funds directly and instead would have to receive money through a government bank account, the aides said. A previous draft stated that no transfer of money would be allowed until a steering committee that included members of the Interior Ministry and National Security Agency approved it within 60 days or rejected it.
The new draft, according to the presidential aides, would not require NGOs to hold their money in public funds.
Rights groups regarded the previous drafts as similar to, if not worse than, the autocratic policies of Mubarak's regime, when NGOs faced retaliation from police for exposing human rights violations, abuse and torture.
In the new bill, Al-Qazzaz said the steering committee may receive reports from intelligence agencies about NGOs or groups applying to register as NGOs. He described it as "inter-agency" work.
Aides said the steering committee will be comprised of nine officials, four elected to the body from the NGO community and four to be appointed by the Minister of Social Solidarity. The minister himself would be the ninth.
The committee would be responsible for a number of tasks, including granting and rejecting NGO licenses as well as objecting to NGO activities that exceed or counter the group's registered mandate. The steering committee could refer an NGO to a court for a judge to rule on whether to revoke a group's license.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which has emerged as the country's most powerful political group, is among those affected by the new law. Under Mubarak, it was banned from politics and from registering as an NGO.
The president's Freedom and Justice Party and the Muslim Brotherhood — from which the party emerged — will now be allowed to work alongside one another in what Al-Qazzaz described as "gray area" between political activism and the work of local charitable groups involved in awareness programs.
"Politics is in everything," he said.