Analysis. Italy continues to do business with Egypt, even as the military government passed new legislation that will stifle non-governmental organizations.

Last critical voices in Egypt could soon disappear

On Tuesday, the Tuttofood conference, a massive Italy-based culinary trade show, was held in Cairo. In May the show will move to Milan, Italy. The presentation was aimed at Egyptian companies interested in doing business in Italy in the fields of agriculture and foodstuffs. According to the Egyptian financial newspaper Amwal Al Ghad, during the session, the head of the economic office of the Italian Embassy, Pietro Tombaccini, said that the volume of Italian imports to the North African country increased 3 percent in the first eight months of the year, reaching $2 billion.

That increase may sound very small, but it is a sign that relations between Cairo and Rome were not really affected by Giulio Regeni’s assassination. The measures that the Italian public was expecting were never put into place, and Egypt continues to enjoy friendly relations after the three years of military rule.

The repression campaign that permeates the entire civil society is so broad that it’s been legalized. After the anti-terrorism law that allowed the incarceration of thousands of opponents as well as those accused of opposing the regime, on Tuesday the government passed controversial legislation on NGOs that effectively bans independent civil society groups. It was finally approved by the parliament, a day after the green light by the Council of State, which determined the law was constitutional.

The reaction of human rights organizations was immediate. They now fear an even heavier iron fist on the activities of local associations, now under government control. A new government agency has been created by presidential decree to monitor foreign and domestic associations receiving funds from abroad (an obvious form of survival for local NGOs worldwide). This authority — the National Regulatory Agency for the Work of Foreign Nongovernmental Organizations — will approve all new NGOs and register the nearly 50,000 already active, which will be forced to “work according to the state plans.”

To limit the creation of new organizations, the law requires a minimum capital of 50,000 Egyptian pounds, around $2,800. Critics say this requirement cuts the legs out from under independent or youth initiatives. Previously, only about $600 was required.

The regulatory agency will include not only representatives of the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defense, Justice and Interior, but also of the secret services and the Central Bank. All will work together to review in detail what the critical voices in the country do and say. If they do not like it, there are punitive and monetary sanctions for the NGO leaders: prison terms of one to five years and fines of up to one million Egyptian pounds.

The list of banned activities includes field research and surveys not authorized by the government, a task that has always been performed by the most famous organizations, those that for years have been actively monitoring abuses of the state, torture and disappearances. Their valuable reports could become a relic of an older Egypt.

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