Egypt: The New Woman Research Centre (NWRC) has won its legal battle against the Ministry of Social Affairs

As feminists and NGO advocates celebrated the legal recognition of the New Woman Research Centre, Mariz Tadros discovers the battle is far from over.
The Ministry of Social Affairs had been refusing to register the organisation under current NGO Law 84 of 2002.
The Ministry of Social Affairs rejected NWRC's application on "security grounds".

The NWRC was one of the first Egyptian organisations to adopt an advocacy approach to addressing Egyptian women's rights. Founded in 1984 by a group of female activists with a common vision, the NWRC has been actively advocating women's rights through research, workshops and campaigns addressing issues such as violence against women, reproductive health rights and women's public image. The group's founders played a particularly prominent preparatory role in both the International Conference for Population and Development (ICPD) that took place in Cairo in 1994, as well as the Beijing Women's Conference in 1995.

After being rejected by the ministry, the NWRC took the matter to the administrative court, which issued its ruling on Sunday. Nawla Darwish, head of the group's board of trustees, said the judge had accepted their urgent appeal for registration. According to the NGO law's article 11, an NGO will be prohibited from registration if it engages in clandestine or paramilitary activities, threatens national unity, public order or public morals, engages in political activities undertaken by political parties, or pursues profit-based activities. Article 6 stipulates that the administrative body must provide a detailed explanation in case an NGO's registration is rejected. This did not occur with the NWRC.

The battle for official recognition, however, is not really over until the ministry actually implements the court's decision. In 2000, the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) also won a case against the Ministry of Social Affairs, which had refused to register the group under the law in place at the time (Law 153) for security reasons. EOHR head Hafez Abu Se'da said the court order was never implemented. The group applied for registration again under Law 84 and its application was finally accepted. According to Abu Se'da, if the minister does not implement the court order, the NWRC could file a misdemeanour lawsuit against the minister of social affairs, "which could lead to imprisonment. This is a risk that I doubt the minister of social affairs would take," Abu Se'da said.

While a ministry employee who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the ministry was told that the emergency law takes precedence over all other legislation, including the NGO Law, Abu Se'da said, "the only case in which the government can use the emergency law pretext against an organisation's registration is if they round up the board members and put them in prison."

Even if the NWRC's registration process ends up being hassle-free, the group's right to freely conduct their work may not be around the corner. "Of course, we fear administrative intervention once we are active again," said Darwish. "But what can we do but fight on and make our case known via statements, appeals and much lobbying."

Another legal recourse has also become particularly popular among NGOs. In 2000, the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled against the previous NGO law, Law 153, deeming it unconstitutional and sending it to the legal dustbin. In a statement released by the NWRC this week, the group stressed "the importance of the Egyptian judiciary's role in supporting Egyptian democratic forces, since it still constitutes a protective shield against the increasing and flagrant security interventions which have come to constitute a real obstacle to the development of civil society in our country".

Darwish said that the more general battle against the NGO law would go on. In the meantime, NGOs will continue to struggle against the encroachment on their civil space by the security apparatus, via all possible means, notwithstanding the judiciary. Meanwhile, lawsuits filed by two other advocacy organisations (the Land Centre for Human Rights and the Centre for Housing Rights) whose applications for registration were also rejected are expected to appear before the administrative court this month.