Egypt on Monday issued a new law regulating the work of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), a measure seen by rights groups as the latest sign of a growing crackdown on dissent against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Human rights groups and activists say the law in effect bans their work and makes it harder for charities to operate.
The measure restricts NGO activity to developmental and social work and introduces jail terms of up to five years for non-compliance.
The law gives NGOs a year to comply or face being dissolved by a court.
Parliament passed the bill in November but it had to be ratified by Sisi.
Egyptian rights activists say they face the worst crackdown in their history under Sisi, accusing him of erasing freedoms won in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.
Government had been working for years on a new law regulating NGOs, which rights groups feared would be more restrictive than Mubarak-era rules, but the bill drafted by lawmakers was so restrictive even cabinet ministers objected.
Lawmakers say the measure is necessary to protect national security. The government has long accused human rights groups of taking foreign funds to sow chaos and several face investigation over their funding.
Non-political charities say the measure restricts them at a time when subsidy cuts and tax increases make it harder for Egyptians to make ends meet.
Mohamed Zaree, Egypt programme director at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, told Reuters the new law on NGOs was “the worst in history” and would practically ban charities from carrying out their work.
“The state is operating with no strategy or vision,” Zaree said.
Following the rise in prices after government’s decision to devalue the currency last year, Zaree said civil society groups should be allowed “to serve the needs of the community by offering services government could not, instead of passing a law that ends their role”.
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.