CAIRO (AP) — New York-based Human Rights Watch and 40 Egyptian rights groups on Thursday said Egypt's draft law regulating non-governmental organizations would restrict the funding and operation of independent groups.
The contentious bill, proposed by President Mohammed Morsi and currently under debate by the country's interim legislature, would allow the state to control NGOs' activity as well as their domestic and international funding, HRW said. The current form of the bill is a serious regression from earlier versions, it added.
"This draft law dashes all hopes that independent groups could operate freely and independently after the revolution," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East and North Africa Director.
In a joint statement, 40 Egyptian rights groups accused Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm of seeking to curb the freedom of rights groups through legal restrictions. They said the proposed law potentially gives Egypt's security apparatus the power to suppress rights group, drawing parallels to Egypt's recent past under the rule of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
They also expressed fears foreign NGOs would be treated with hostility and that vaguely worded legislation would hinder operations or the issuance of work permits.
"The presidency's bill reveals the Muslim Brotherhood's desire to cement full administrative control over all aspects of civic action," the statement said.
Morsi said in a statement Monday that the bill is aimed at committing NGOs to the principles of transparency. In the aftermath of the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak, the then-ruling military council shut down several U.S.-funded NGOs and charged a number of their staff, including 16 Americans, with criminal offenses. The Americans left the country and were later tried in absentia. HRW says two international workers are still on trial.
The bill could turn into a new battleground between supporters and opponents of the Islamist president and the Brotherhood, who are already engaged in a tug-of-war over the reform of state institutions.
On Thursday, dozens of Egyptian artists, movie directors, writers and the staff of the Cairo Opera house held a protest in front of the country's oldest music institution to denounce recent measures of the newly appointed culture minister.
They threatened escalation of their protests if the minister Alaa Abdel Aziz did not leave his post.
On Wednesday, Abdel Aziz sacked the head of Opera house in a step seen by the protesters as bending to pressures from Islamists.
Staffers have also closed the curtain on all performances for three days. For the first time in the house's history, the opera Aida — composed by Giuseppe Verdi and debuted to the world in 1871 in Cairo— was cancelled in protest. Singers instead held up posters on stage that said, "No to Brotherhoodization."
The Brotherhood denies trying to monopolize power for itself or other Islamists. But the confrontation illustrates an entrenched problem in reform since Mubarak's ouster and the rise of the Islamists: Many want to see change and reform in government institutions, but some also don't trust the Morsi and the Brotherhood to do it, fearing they will impose a conservative religious agenda that disregards other viewpoints.