Egypt’s president signalled he could order a review of a law restricting the work of non-governmental organisations, which raised an outcry from human rights groups, saying it needed to be “balanced”.
Rights groups say the May 2017 law effectively bans their work and makes it harder for charities to operate. Officials said it is necessary, arguing foreign-funded NGOs threaten national security.
Responding to a question from a participant in a youth forum in Sharm al-Sheikh to revisit the NGO law President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said: “I agree with you. I believe in the work done by civil society organisations.”
“The law contained phobia and a fear of these organisations for Egypt,” he added.
“I want to reassure those listening to me inside and outside Egypt, in Egypt, we are keen that the law becomes balanced and achieves what is required of it to regulate the work of these groups in a good way. This is not political talk,” Sisi said.
The measure restricts NGO activity to development and social work and carries jail terms of up to five years for violation.
Sisi said government was dissatisfied with the law when it was issued last year and he opted not to actively enforce it, “in the hope we can move to redraft it.”
Critics said the law mainly targets rights groups, even apolitical charities complain it restricts them at a time when subsidy cuts and tax increases make it harder for Egyptians to make ends meet.
Charities have long played an important role in feeding, clothing and providing healthcare and education in a country where millions live on less than $2 a day.
Under the law, donations exceeding 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($560) must be pre-approved. If no approval is granted within 60 days the request is automatically denied. Failure to inform authorities could result in jail terms of up to five years and fines of up to a million Egyptian pounds ($56,000).
Gamal Eid, founder and director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, expressed scepticism over Sisi’s seriousness in amending the law.
“If the calls for an independent civil society from abroad ease, he will not amend the law,” Eid said, adding government did not respect civil society in Egypt.