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Egypt Revives Law Allowing Government To Control NGOs

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Egypt is tightening its control over civil and human rights groups. It has set a deadline for the nongovernmental organizations to comply with a 12-year-old law. That law allows the state to control their activities or they face prosecution. Critics say freedom of expression is being strangled. And NPR's Leila Fadel reports that NGO's say that they are in a battle to survive.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Inside the offices of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, local human rights groups meet with diplomats. The discussion is about their right to exist. The government is basically threatening to shut them down or prosecute them if they don't comply with what they describe as a Draconian law.

The law, first introduced under Egypt's ousted strongman, Hosni Mubarak, allows the state to choose their board of trustees and uses ambiguous language that would allow the state to prosecute the organizations just for doing their jobs.

Khaled Mansour of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights spoke to us in his Cairo office.

KHALED MANSOUR: To sign on under this law, the existing law, means you're signing your own death certificate.

FADEL: And although the law has been on the books since 2002, it's rarely implemented, he says. Mansour says organizations like his are legally operating as private companies on issues like political prisoners and medical access for people with hepatitis C.

MANSOUR: If we cannot operate independently, we'd better shut down. But then they will have to shut us down.

FADEL: In July, the government issued a deadline in Egypt's biggest newspaper. It quote, "urged Egyptian and foreign entities to license themselves under this law within 45 days, or face possible prosecution." This would include law firms and research companies that work on human rights issues. Many foreign NGOs have suspended operations and local NGOs have spent every day lobbying government officials to reverse the decision and to work on a new more democratic law, that would allow for truly independent organizations. This week, the government announced that the deadline's been pushed to November 10. But the problem hasn't been solved.

Ziad Abdel Tawab is the deputy director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies in Egypt. The organization is registered as a research company.

ZIAD ABDEL TAWAB: The government doesn't want to see any form of association between individuals that works on democracy issues that is not under their primary control.

FADEL: He says this is a warning from an autocratic state.

TAWAB: So there has been a policy of creating - of turning Egypt into a society that looks a little bit like North Korea.

FADEL: Tawab says it hasn't been this bad for civil society since the 1960s. At that time, the state's policy was to completely shut down any type of criticism and to control the media. And so Tawab says they're so busy protecting themselves, they don't have time to do the real work - working for the rights of Egyptians who claim persecution and worse.

TAWAB: Where we're talking about extensive amounts of arbitrary arrests and detentions, extrajudicial killings, impunity for all of these violations. And instead of working on all of these, you need to go and negotiate with the government, should you exist as an organization, to oversee these violations or not.

FADEL: On TV, human rights groups and foreign NGOs are demonized at a time when a with us or against us narrative consumes the country. And the government is apparently seeking even more control. A draft law would create a committee that includes representatives from the security forces that could veto all NGO activities. The government says the aim is to make sure these organizations are operating within the law and aren't receiving illicit funding, especially at a time of rising militancy in Egypt. But that doesn't convince Khaled Mansour from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

MANSOUR: We are trying to make this a better country and more democratic, less poor. More prosperous. And we think that all of us have to be in it.

FADEL: Mansour says after two popular uprisings in 2011 and 2013, the government should understand that freedom of association isn't dangerous. The true danger is choking off any right to criticize. Then you give people stark choices, he says - to give up affecting change, or to turn to violence. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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