March 24, 2023
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20520
RE: Upcoming registration deadline under Egypt’s 2019 NGO law
Dear Secretary Blinken,
Our organizations write to you with serious concern regarding the upcoming deadline imposed by Egyptian authorities, requiring all local and foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Egypt to register with the government by April 11, 2023, in accordance with the draconian 2019 NGO law. Registration and further implementation of this law will further erode civic space in Egypt, and we fear its detrimental impact given that human rights defenders and government critics in Egypt are already operating in a landscape of systemic repression. The U.S. government should swiftly urge the Egyptian authorities to withdraw this registration deadline until it amends the NGO law and its bylaws by removing the undue restrictions it imposes on freedom of association and expression in Egypt.
The 2019 NGO law prohibits any form of “civic work” without prior registration and government permission. It places severe restrictions on the activities of NGOs in Egypt, including by mandating government approval for standard activities such as conducting studies or publications, and completely prohibiting activities that are considered “political” or allegedly undermine “national security.” None of these terms are specifically defined in the law, leaving space for sweeping interpretations and arbitrary application.
Without defining what is exactly meant by “political” work, the 2019 law bans NGOs from carrying out any work that could be remotely construed as “political.” It could also be used to target and eliminate the work of independent NGOs that work on human rights issues. This includes those who work on political and civil rights, as well as groups that support women and girls survivors of gender-based violence or undertake climate change advocacy. Many of these organizations have been targeted by the government and security agencies for years, through arbitrary detention, politically motivated prosecutions, travel bans, asset freezes, unlawful surveillance and other forms of harassment and intimidation.
The convoluted registration process spelled out in the 2019 law requires an organization to provide the Ministry of Social Solidarity with an unreasonably lengthy and complex set of documents and reports, in most cases amounting to hundreds of pages, clearly intended to negate the essence of the right to freedom of association and the ability to work without prior government permission. As of October 2022, only 32,000 out of 52,500 NGOs operating in the country have managed to register, according to the Ministry of Social Solidarity. According to the law, NGOs that are unable to register by the April deadline will be forcibly closed and authorities will freeze their assets. Some organizations, such as the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, have already ended operations citing the onerous registration requirements. Several leading activists described registering under this law as a “death sentence” for their organization.
The United States should urge the Egyptian government to change course, starting with abolishing the registration deadline. The Biden administration should also send a clear message to the Egyptian government that it should not punish any organizations who do not register until the NGO law is amended in accordance with international law and standards.
For Fiscal Year 2022 and 2023, the U.S. Congress has conditioned a portion of security assistance to Egypt on “sustained and effective” human rights progress, including the implementation of reforms that allow civil society organizations (CSOs) the ability to operate freely. The NGO law, and its expected consequences on CSOs, explicitly demonstrates that the Egyptian government is not advancing such reforms but is instead pursuing avenues to further restrict the work of such actors. Congress has provided the administration with the tools to push back.
The U.S. government has also repeatedly committed to elevating human rights in its engagement with the Egyptian government. Following your January meeting with President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in Cairo, you claimed that the U.S.-Egypt relationship is “strengthened by progress on human rights.” Similarly, after your meeting with Egyptian human rights defenders on the same trip, the State Department emphasized “steadfast support for human rights defenders.”
To follow through on such strong human rights rhetoric with tangible policy responses, the U.S. government should prioritize challenging the severe undue restrictions on civil society posed by the NGO law. Without significant international pressure, particularly from a close security partner, basic rights and freedoms of Egyptian civil society will be further eroded or denied.
Amnesty International, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, CIVICUS, Committee for Justice, Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), Egyptian Front for Human Rights (EFHR), Egyptian Human Rights Forum (EHRF), EgyptWide for Human Rights, FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights), in the framework of the Observatory for the protection of human rights defenders, Freedom House, The Freedom Initiative, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), MENA Rights Group, OMCT (World Organisation Against Torture) in the framework of the Observatory for the protection of human rights defenders, PEN America, Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), Refugees Platform in Egypt (RPE), Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP)
cc: Barbara Leaf, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs
Erin Barclay, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor