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Volume 4, Issue 1:

The Muslim Brotherhood on the State of Civil Society and Civil Society Law in Post-Mubarak Egypt

 

Letter from the Editor

The International Center for Not‐for‐Profit Law is pleased to reintroduce our online periodical, Global Trends in NGO Law. Global Trends synthesizes key developments relating to the legal and regulatory issues that affect non‐governmental organizations (NGOs).

In this issue, we present an interview with Khaled Hamza of the Muslim Brotherhood regarding the state of civil society and civil society law in post revolutionary Egypt. Mr. Hamza is the Chief Editor of the Muslim Brotherhood’s main website,ikhwanweb.com, and a founding member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Think Tank. Egypt’s internal debate over how to regulate its NGO sector has made international news, and through this interview, ICNL hopes to provide timely and important information illuminating the views on this subject of one of the key actors in Egyptian politics today. While we do not endorse the assertions made in the interview, and on some points have publicly taken an opposing position, we hope that publication of the Muslim Brotherhood’s remarks will spark a robust discussion about the state of Egypt’s civil society, and particularly, its NGO law.

The interview published below was conducted exclusively in writing, via a series of email exchanges, and therefore did not lend itself to follow up questions. Not all questions asked were answered.

This issue of Global Trends introduces a new feature: a section inviting reader comments. Through this feature, we hope to facilitate thought-provoking discussions among our readers on the issues presented in our publication. We invite you to comment on the interview with Mr. Hamza.

Introduction

Egyptian activists have long called for reform of the Mubarak-era Law on Associations and Foundations (Law 84 of 2002)1, which imposes onerous restrictions on CSOs. Since the 2011 Egyptian revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak, a number of drafts have been proposed to replace it.

These efforts intensified in 2013. In January 2013, the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs (MoISA) circulated a new draft Law on Civil Associations and Foundations. The draft would curb the ability of foreign organizations to operate in Egypt, restrict the ability of Egyptian CSOs to receive or provide international funding, and limit the purposes and activities that Egyptian organizations can undertake. Shortly thereafter, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), a political party created by the Muslim Brotherhood, circulated its own draft law. The draft loosens constraints on the formation of CSOs, but contains almost identical restrictions on foreign funding and foreign organizations as the MoISA draft. Both drafts have been submitted to the Shura Council, Egypt’s upper house of parliament, which is dominated by the FJP and led by one of its key members 2. The Shura Council has been holding weekly meetings to discuss the provision of a new law on associations, and has been basing its discussions on the FJP draft.

Egypt’s new constitution, adopted in December of 2012, allows the Shura Council to enact legislation “in case of the dissolution” of the People’s Assembly, the lower house of Parliament 3. The timing of elections for the People’s Assembly is currently unclear, 4 as is the Shura Council’s inclination to pass legislation in the absence of a lower house, but it is certainly possible that a new law governing associations will be passed in the coming weeks or months.

The Muslim Brotherhood, considered the “grandfather of Islamist movements around the world,”5 currently dominates the political scene in Egypt. Not only did the Brotherhood’s political arm, the FJP, sweep the 2012 parliamentary elections, but one of its leaders, Mohamed Morsi, won the presidency in June 2012, and together (President Morsi and the FJP) decisively shaped the contents of Egypt’s new constitution.6 Irrespective of one’s position on the role of Islamist movements in politics -- and the Muslim Brotherhood’s role specifically -- the Brotherhood’s power and influence within Egypt and the broader region cannot be questioned.

Given both the Brotherhood’s recent political ascendency, and the FJP’s entry into the debate over a new Egyptian associations law, ICNL thought it was important to gain the movement’s insights into the role of civil society in the post-Mubarak era. We hope this interview and the accompanying online discussion contribute to the important dialogue currently underway in Egypt over the future of civil society law in the post-Mubarak era.

Interview with Khaled Hamza of the Muslim Brotherhood

ICNL: Please tell us about yourself and your role in the Muslim Brotherhood.

My name is Khaled Hamza, and I am the Chief Editor of the Muslim Brotherhood’s main website, ikhwanweb.com, and a founding member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Think Tank. I’m also a pro-democracy activist, and was arrested in February 2008 after leading an international campaign against military trials for civilians in Egypt. Additionally, I am a committed human rights activist and member of the Arab Committee for Human Rights. As part of Muslim Brotherhood delegations, I have represented the movement in many different parts of the world. I hold a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering from Mansoura University in Egypt and a BA in Philosophy from Tanta University in Egypt.

ICNL: How would you describe the Muslim Brotherhood’s role within Egyptian civil society both historically and today? How has its role changed since its founding in 1928?

From the outset, the Muslim Brotherhood was founded as a civilian organization endeavoring to reform moral and social issues in the community, especially illiteracy, lack of health awareness and prevailing poverty.

The Muslim Brotherhood Society’s first internal law, issued in Ismailia in 1930, details aspects of the group’s work, mostly social development work, not religious preaching – where ‘fighting illiteracy’ goes hand in hand with ‘memorizing the Holy Quran’. The Brotherhood works for health-awareness and health-care amongst all segments of the nation, especially villagers, just as it works to cure social ills such as drunkenness, drug-addiction, gambling, and prostitution.

While the group also worked to defend Islam, it endeavored to solve economic crises and to encourage charitable work – through initiatives to help the poor and charity projects.

Contrary to what some believe, at the beginning of its inception the Brotherhood did not engage in political action. Indeed, the second article of its first internal law states that “the group shall not engage in political or religious affairs and disputes whatsoever and will not take sides.”

Those who follow the history of the Brotherhood will notice the group began to show interest in politics at a later stage, in the late thirties – not as its sole-activity, but as an addition to the Brotherhood’s activities which served the same goal: reforming society morally and developmentally, improving living conditions, and achieving independence.

The Brotherhood continues along the same path to this day. The group is still a major player in the field of civic and charitable work, in addition to being the most prominent political actor.

ICNL: How was the Brotherhood able to become such a popular and influential voice in Egyptian civil society despite various legal restrictions prohibiting it from operating legally and openly participating in politics?

The main reason for the Brotherhood’s success is that its role is mainly social and religious, based on direct contact with community members, and not limited to traditional partisan communication mechanisms, which a repressive state can control and stop.

So, even in periods of political stalemate, the role of the Brotherhood and its activities in society never stopped, as the main objective of the group is ‘reforming society’ and not ‘seeking power’ as is usually the case with any traditional party.

The Mubarak regime always tried to repress the Brotherhood and close its institutions – whether religious, charitable or civil society outfits. But the group has been able, through its established performance in various aspects of social work, to maintain contact with the masses.

ICNL: Please describe the Brotherhood’s views on the importance and role of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) operating within Egypt.

The Brotherhood believes in the importance of civil society’s role, and the need for independence from the executive authority of the state. This is evident in post-revolution Egypt’s new Constitution, where Article 51 gives the right to anyone to form such institutions with a simple notification to relevant authorities. The same article also prevents the executive branch from dissolving CSOs, except through a judicial order, in accordance with the law. Further, the Brotherhood believes that all CSOs and trade unions are partners with the state in its comprehensive development efforts. Hence, the more effective CSOs there are, the more support they can lend to society at large.

ICNL: The Law on Associations and Foundations (Law 84 of 2002) currently governs the operation of foundations and associations operating in Egypt. Many civil society organizations have called for reform of this law. What is the Brotherhood’s position on whether Law 84 should be revised?

Law No. 84 of 2002 has several problems. It deprives civil society of its independence and supports the power of the state and its interference in CSO work, so it becomes a reflection of state authority.

The Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), seek to replace this law with another law that achieves the independence of CSOs and NGOs, with oversight belonging only with the judiciary.

The current law allows the executive to dissolve and appoint the boards of directors of CSOs. Clearly, this interference is unacceptable and cannot continue. This has been amended in the new constitution. The law should soon be amended to reflect the new constitution’s dictates.

ICNL: What, in your view, are the contributions of CSOs focused on democracy and human rights, both foreign and domestic, to Egyptian society?

CSOs working in Egypt – both Egyptian and foreign – focus mainly on issues of democracy, women rights, and human rights. Undoubtedly, these are important issues that deserve particular attention, especially in periods of transition from a repressive authoritarian regime to one that respects human rights and is based on equality.

But there are problems here concerning citizens’ priorities. This is, perhaps, what distinguishes NGOs from CSOs. The former pays serious attention to development issues such as literacy, improving the conditions of the poor, and improving health, especially in villages and slums. These issues are a priority for citizens.

Therefore, citizens feel that these organizations adopt agendas that serve the people, unlike their view of CSO’s work. Women in rural areas, for example, do not consider female candidacy for parliament a priority. Their priority is to improve their living conditions, gain education, secure health-care, and obtain access to state benefits during pregnancy and lactation so they do not have to work, and so on.

This is why CSOs cannot find the same popular interaction with their issues as charitable organizations. This represents a challenge for CSOs.

Furthermore, CSOs often start their work from a purely Western perspective, failing to take into account cultural and religious differences. Sometimes they do not even respect those differences, which means that these organizations sometimes do not reflect community values inherent in Egyptian society and find themselves in a losing cultural and social battle.

ICNL: Should CSOs have the right to freely express their opposition to government policies? What, if any, limits should be placed on this right?

Everyone has the right to object to government policies through lawful means; but I believe CSOs must embrace the idea of ‘public interest’ when expressing their positions. Their essential role is to defend the interests of the general community, like human rights and transparency in elections, for example.

By contrast, it is unacceptable that CSOs should express rejection or support for public policy discourses, because then they become partial to a political party at the expense of another, as is happening now in Egypt – and with the loss of impartiality, they also lose credibility among large segments of the public.

If you assume the role of a political opponent of a party or a government, people will not deal with your human rights reports, for example, in the same way as if you stay at an equal distance from all political parties and confine your opposition to positions or decisions that affect human rights, not political discourses.

ICNL: What is the Brotherhood’s position on the role and acceptability of foreign funding of Egyptian CSOs, and more generally, the role of foreign CSOs operating within Egypt?

This is a very sensitive issue to Egyptians at large. A survey conducted by Observers Without Borders in June 2011 showed that 71% of Egyptians reject foreign funding of CSOs. Another survey conducted by Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies showed that 70% of Egyptians reject direct US support for CSOs.

This matter is subject to serious debate and discussion. CSOs face a challenge in providing resources to carry out their activities. If they rely on state support, they lose credibility. Also, if they rely on foreign funding, they find themselves in another problem, as they will – for example – have to take positions contrary to what they believe or what can be tolerated by the general public in Egypt.

This matter, therefore, must be subject to the full control of independent regulatory bodies, in order to realize the highest standards of transparency – from identifying donors, to declaring what the money was spent on.

ICNL: The new Constitution allows the Shura Council to initiate legislation when the House of Representatives has been dissolved. The House of Representatives was dissolved by court order in June 2012. Should the Shura Council use this power pending election of a new parliament, and if so, under what circumstances or for what types of laws?

The Shura Council can exercise this legislative role for only a limited period of time. It does have urgent and necessary work to do, like amending the parliamentary elections law and the political rights law so that elections for the new House of Representatives can be held on time as set by the Constitution.

In addition, the Shura Council is required to start preparing a package of laws that Egyptians await as fruit of the Revolution, fruit of the new Constitution, like setting the minimum and maximum wage, which it already is working on. It has also passed a law reinstating the Free Zone in Port Said.

There are a set of laws complementary to the Constitution; but time may not be sufficient or suitable for discussion of those before parliamentary elections. Those include the law of public protest and the laws of the independent assemblies established by the constitution, e.g. the Economic and Social Council, the Endowment Authority, the Heritage Authority, Media and Press Authorities, etc.

ICNL: What is the Muslim Brotherhood’s view on the right to strike and protest? What are the limits, if any, to this right?

The rights to strike and protest or demonstrate are guaranteed by the Constitution, and no one has the authority to cancel or abolish it. The Brotherhood supports this right without restrictions that would rob it of its effectiveness and its positive role.

Egypt is currently undergoing a period of transition characterized by very high demands, especially factional demands, coupled with weakness and inability of the State to meet all these demands. It would therefore be wise for the new government to show patience in dealing with the sectors of the public who suffer from difficult living conditions as a result of Mubarak regime policies. This is why State agencies and the government did not try to suppress any labor strikes or protests.

For now, the government always tries to find temporary solutions to balance between meeting the legitimate demands of strikers or protesters and keeping the wheel of production going, since the economic situation in Egypt is not propitious for strikes and stoppage.

Egypt needs a protest and demonstration law that safeguards the rights and security of the demonstrators and also the interests of society in general. There is no country in the world without a demonstration law that regulates demonstrations, so they would not turn into violence or chaos.

ICNL: What is the Brotherhood’s position on the draft law on the right to strike and protest, drafted in early 2013 reportedly by the Shura Council’s human rights committee?

The Brotherhood had reservations about submitting this bill without a social dialogue on the matter. Furthermore, the time is not right for it, because there are legislative priorities of more interest to citizens. This is a preliminary version with reservations that should be discussed and left to the House of Representatives to consider more fully, taking into consideration similar laws in other countries.

ICNL: What is the Brotherhood’s position on the rights of citizens and activists, whether foreign or native, to personal security while participating in public demonstrations? What security measures should be taken, if any, to ensure the safety of activists, particularly female activists?

There is no doubt that security services have a role in securing peaceful demonstrations. No one should be allowed to attack those protesters. Certainly, this does not apply only to activists but to any citizen – male or female – who participates in a peaceful march without attacking public or private property, institutions or facilities.

Thousands of citizens demonstrated and protested in Tahrir Square during the rule of President Mohamed Morsi. No one attacked them in any way. All police / protester clashes were in the vicinity of government institutions or private property, especially embassies and hotels. The role of the police was limited to securing these facilities and preventing people from storming them.

It would be better for the police to patrol Tahrir Square to protect demonstrators, especially with repeated incidents of sexual harassment of female activists and protesters. In time, when trust is regained between citizens and the police, the police will again play its essential role in protecting protesters and safeguarding their safety and security.

ICNL: What trends does the Brotherhood foresee for CSOs working in Egypt in the coming years and decades?

Things in Egypt are generally improving. There are significant obstacles and challenges, but we have great confidence that Egypt is able to go on, to build a strong and powerful State; and a powerful State necessarily requires a strong and effective civil society.

Thousands of Egyptians are ready and willing to participate both in political life and in public activities, which represents a great opportunity for civil society to become more effective after long years where citizens spurned public participation, especially if CSOs adopted an agenda based on Egyptian society priorities and concerns. CSOs are perfectly capable of doing so.

Conclusion

In the coming months and years, the consequences of the Egyptian uprising, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s democratic rise to power, will become clearer. It will be fascinating to watch how these trends unfold, specifically including how the new Egyptian associations law, once agreed upon and passed, will influence the role of civil society within Egypt and beyond in the years to come.

Notes

1 The Arab Republic of Egypt, Law on Associations and Foundations (Law 84 of 2002); Implementing Regulation for Law 84 of 2002, (Ministry of Social Affairs [Now Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs] Decree 178 of 2002). Both can be accessed from ICNL’s Civic Freedom Monitor for Egypt: http://www.icnl.org/research/monitor/egypt.html. See also The Arab Spring: An Opportunity for Greater Freedom of Association and Assembly in Tunisia and Egypt? Global Trends in NGO Law, Vol. 3, Iss. 1, June 2011, available at http://www.icnl.org/research/trends/trends3-1.pdf.

2Brotherhood’s Fahmy named Egypt Shura Council Speaker, Ahram Online, February 28, 2012, available at http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/35602/Egypt/Politics-/Brotherhoods-Fahmy-named-Egypt-Shura-Council-speak.aspx.

3The Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt, signed into law by President Morsi on 26 December 2012, Article 131. The constitution requires that any laws passed while the People’s Assembly is dissolved be “presented to the [lower house] for consideration as soon as it is convened.” Id.   

4Though elections were expected in late April of 2013, they were canceled by court order in March, and the issue now stands before Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court.

5Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt), New York Times, December 24, 2012 available at http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/m/muslim_brotherhood_egypt/index.html.

6Final Results: Muslim Brotherhood wins sweeping victory in Egyptian elections, Haaretz, January 21, 2012, available at http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/final-results-muslim-brotherhood-wins-sweeping-victory-in-egyptian-elections-1.408477.

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