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Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

Egypt: Women's Organizations

Egypt: Women's Organizations
Date distributed (ymd): 990921
Document reposted by APIC

+++++++++++++++++++++Document Profile+++++++++++++++++++++

Region: North Africa
Issue Areas: +political/rights+ +economy/development+ +gender/women+
Summary Contents:
This posting contains a press release from the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights and seven other Egyptian groups, protesting government restrictions on women's organizations.

+++++++++++++++++end profile++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Note: Dr. Nawal El-Saadawi, mentioned in the press release, is also the author of numerous fiction and non-fiction works, including the most recent volume of her autobiography (Daughter of Isis, ISBN: 1856496805), Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (ISBN: 0872862232), and The Nawal El Saadawi Reader (ISBN: 1856495140).

For convenient access to purchase books by El-Saadawi (and selected other African authors) at, go to Purchases through these links will bring a 5% referral fee from Amazon to APIC, at no additional cost to you.

If you know the ISBN number of any book in any field you wish to purchase from Amazon, you can obtain a 15% referral fee for APIC, again at no additional cost to you, by going to:

Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights

September 2, 1999

Press Release 153/1999

Women and the challenges of Law

The stance of the Ministry of Social Affairs regarding the attempt to establish the Egyptian Women's Union, based on the initiative of Dr. Nawal El-Saadawi, was nothing but a warning sign that reveals the true intentions behind the issuance of Law 153 of 1999. The Ministry's statement asserts that there is no room for anyone wanting to establish an organisation that does not subject itself to the control of the administration. This law is but a poor attempt from the administration to cover in the form of a law the real and ugly image of governmental control. This has been exemplified by the following facts:

Firstly, a preliminary committee was formed to discuss the establishment of Egypt's Women's Union. This committee was headed by Dr. Nawal El-Saadawi, who met with Minister Dr. Mervat Tellawi on 19 June 1999. Dr. Tellawi expressed her support of the initiative to establish a union for women's NGOs working in the fields of women, family and social development. Based on the initial approval by the Minister, a meeting was set for 27th June. The committee invited women's associations taken from a list released by the general administrator of the associations in the ministry, stating the names of 21 associations working in the area of women, to attend the meeting. Promptly after Dr. Saadawi had invited representatives from these women's associations, a number of letters (#936, 1123 and 1223) were received from the President of the General Council highlighting the Ministry's position with regards to independent activity.

The letters stated the following:

  1. The invitation to a meeting to discuss the establishment of a women's union is an unlawful one because it is not permissible to invite associations to attend a meeting unless the invitation is issued by regional unions or the general union.
  2. The concept of "establishment" only means the presentation of documentation, illustrations and guidelines.
  3. There is no field of work or activity called the field of women.
  4. A group that is working close to the ministry is making efforts to establish a specialised union for associations working in the field of women and it is not permissible for more than one specialised union to be established in the country for the same activity.
  5. The law requires the postponement of the establishment of the union until after the guidelines and modifications to the organisation of these associations are made.

The truly surprising aspect is the condescending manner of these letters and the blatant contradiction they show. When the applicant is someone the ministry does not approve of, it states that there is no field of work called the field of women, and when the applicant is someone that the ministry approves it states that there is indeed a field of work for women.

The government's mentality that is responsible for the law organising the work of non-governmental organisations is unable to acknowledge that it is the right of citizens to meet and discuss their lawful aims, and that the aim to establish a union of women is indeed a lawful one. Thus, meeting in order to discuss the matter is legitimate and there is no law that restricts the individual from inviting representatives of some associations to meet.

This bureaucratic mentality, which is focused on the idea of gaining permission to exercise freedom, is incapable of imagining that a citizen would dare to take any action without taking the consent of the government. Until this way of thinking gains a lawful cover for its domineering nature, there is no objection to restricting the concept of establishment to that of the presentation of documentation and guidelines, which in fact is only the final stage of the process. This is done in order to obtain approval from the administration to exercise one's constitutional rights. This reasoning totally ignores the fact that, in order to present guidelines or other documentation, several meetings and preliminary sessions are required to formulate these guidelines, and this is the essence of the process of establishment.

That logic also ignores that the law regulating the work of NGOs is active on the day after its publication, i.e. starting from 28th May 1999. Thus, it is incorrect for the law to require the postponement of the establishment of the union until after the executive guidelines of the law are issued based on the following legal considerations:

  1. The law should not affect the process of establishment of any new associations, organisations or unions. According to the law, the only process that should be postponed is that which entails improving conditions within, noting that this process only applies to organisations or associations whose systems do not meet the conditions specified in the new law.
  2. Using the logic of this law, it is assumed that the associations and civic organisations that do not have these problems should not be affected in any way whatsoever. The process of improving conditions should not affect any organisation's legal status, for it is still a legal entity that has its individual authorities.

However, the most astonishing remark remains that there is no field or scope of activity that concerns women. Indeed, it is extremely difficult to imagine any kind of civic or voluntary activity that does not include room for women. Even if this were true, that does not mean that this field should be marginalised, underestimated, or restricted. Certainly this would disclaim the law itself, which stated in article 11 that associations working for the development of society can resume their activities in various fields as long as they function according to the executive guidelines and seek the approval of the specific unions and that of the managerial body.

By looking further into this article, it becomes clear that the associations are given freedom when it comes to selecting their cause and scope of activities. However, what the new law targets is duplication and multiplicity. Ultimately, the goal is the development of society and women constitute nearly fifty per cent of this society that we seek to develop and nurture. Hence denying the role of women's groups under the new law would contradict this higher goal, on which both the government and the civic community have agreed. In addition, going public with the intention to establish a union for women's associations does not go against the essence of the new law, which requires that there be at least ten private existing associations during the transitional phase.

It is apparent from the correspondence of the preparatory committee that the public announcement of this new union will not happen until after the executive guidelines are issued and the associations start to modify their organisational structures. The preparatory committee has set a meeting for 26th December 1999 to finish up the process. This date was selected taking into account the deadline for the issuance of the executive guidelines. An important point that should not be overlooked is the fat that under article 64 of the new law, associations and civic institutions are given the right to establish amongst them unions of a specialised nature or along regional lines having nominal significance. This is governed by certain guidelines whereby the specialised union must be made up of the associations and civic organisations that work together or finance common activities in a certain field, whether on the national or governorate level.

The Minister's statements are clearly contradictory and full of double standards. While Dr. Nawal El-Saadawi was being subjected to fierce accusations, the minister was making public statements to the effect that the Ministry of Social Affairs had received applications from over two hundred civil associations requesting the establishment of an activity-specific union on a nation-wide level. The minister also stated that the ministry was in fact seriously considering the issue and that, in effect, those applicants had priority in initiating the establishment of such a union, making it unlawful for anyone else to do so because the establishment of more than one union within the same field on a national level was not legitimate.

The undersigned human rights organisations have the following questions:

  1. The minister justified her refusal of the meeting of 22nd May 1999 on the grounds that the associations invited had not yet completed the process of adapting their organisations to the new law. This process is pending upon the issuance of the executive guidelines, yet how is it possible for more than two hundred associations to modify their organisations in the absence of these guidelines?
  2. Using the same reasoning, how could it be possible to give these associations priority in establishing an encompassing union while at the same time forbidding the associations attempting the establishment of the Egyptian Women's Association from doing so? It should be noted that their initiative goes back several months and it was approved by the minister and the Ministry of Social Affairs.
  3. It is also highly questionable that over two hundred associations managed to have the same idea, met and discussed this initiative in a record time, giving them priority in establishing the union. It is only logical that there was a party that initiated the contacts and co-ordinated between these numerous organisations on all logistical matters, e.g. correspondence, preliminary meetings, coming to mutual agreement on basic issues, improving organisational structure, etc. What is this party's legal standing? Who was behind this initiative? Using the same argument as the President of the General Council, wasn't this initiative by over two hundred associations that had not completed the revision of their organisational structures an illegitimate one, and one that was premature?

Moving on to the issue of the Arab Women's Solidarity Association that exists under the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), this group has been given more of a consultant classification. The reason for this was the international standing of the association, based on the decision of the Council in its regular round in the year 1985. The association was given approval by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and remained active, proceeding with its international meetings in Cairo with the approval of the Administration of International Associations in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It also continued its activities in Egypt and the Arab World after its branch in Egypt was closed on 15th June 1999. This branch used the name of the main association, as do the other association offices. The Arab Women's Solidarity Association also held its 5th International Conference in Cairo in October 1997, with the approval of the official bodies. This official standing of the association has no bearing on any of its local offices in Arab countries, including Egypt. Also, the shutting down of the association's Egyptian office does not affect the main association in any way, nor does it affect its presence or activities. More importantly, Law 153 of 1999 allows international associations that operate more like consultants to assume the activities of associations. This is based on the classification of these associations as international civic organisations.

Based on what we have presented the human rights organisations renew their doubts and fears regarding the legitimacy of the new law. Human rights organisations are also concerned about the intentions of the ministry, and the way in which it deals with institutions it does not want to see established. The ministry also insists on using the law for political considerations, something that contradicts with the minister's statements before and after the issuance of the law asserting that no institution or association will be barred from activity or from being established unless for legal considerations.

The undersigned organisations and all other human rights and civil society associations renew their demand that the constitutional loopholes and the undemocratic nature of the new law be reconsidered. It is imperative that the law is re-evaluated on more democratic grounds to include the whole of civil society in Egypt, acknowledging that it is the basis of civil and voluntary activity for the new millennium.

  1. Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights
  2. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
  3. Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession
  4. Group for Democratic Development
  5. Human Rights Centre for the Assistance of Prisoners
  6. Hisham Mubarak Centre for Law
  7. Nadim Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence
  8. Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights

Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR)
8/10 Mathaf El-Manyal Street, 10th Floor,
Manyal El-Roda, Cairo, Egypt
Telephone: +20-(2)-363 68 11; +20-(2)-362 04 67
Facsimile: +20-(2)-362 1613
E-Mail: or
Home Page:

This material is being reposted for wider distribution by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC). APIC's primary objective is to widen the policy debate in the United States around African issues and the U.S. role in Africa, by concentrating on providing accessible policy-relevant information and analysis usable by a wide range of groups and individuals.

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