CAIRO — Egyptian authorities pushed back Sunday a deadline for local and international non-government organizations to register under a restrictive law or risk being shut down, a decision that was criticized as a way to silence critics of the government, a government official said.
The initial decision called on civil groups to register under a law that dates back to longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak that gives the government wide-ranging powers to interfere in their work, finances and staffing. Violators risked being shut down or prosecuted.
The decision had raised a storm among a number of local and international rights groups, who saw themselves targeted by such a move. The 2002 law was widely criticized by the rights community in Egypt, most of whom registered as law firms or not-for-profit organizations to avoid government meddling.
Since Mubarak's ouster, various drafts for a new law to govern civil groups in Egypt have been discussed, including proposals from the groups themselves, but never passed.
Khaled Sultan, an official in the Social Solidarity Ministry in charge of such groups, told The Associated Press on Sunday that the government pushed the deadline to November.
"This is not aimed at anyone. But any group (working here) must be overseen by a government agency," he said.
A government statement later said the decision followed demands by several groups to extend the deadline to allow for registration.
The state-appointed National Council for Human Rights had lobbied the government to put off the decision, which was initially published in a state-owned newspaper as an advertisement without any prior notification to the groups.
The decision had caused an outcry among the international and local rights groups. In a joint statement Saturday, 45 international and national human rights groups criticized the measure as a looming crackdown on independent associations in Egypt.
"Egyptian authorities are using the law to orchestrate a witch hunt against NGOS and put them under their thumb," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Middle East and North Africa Program deputy director at Amnesty International, a co-signatory of the statement.
Mohammed Zaree, a researcher with the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies — a group that would have been affected by the decision — said the delay has postponed what he called a "death sentence" by the government against rights groups. He said that amid a crackdown on dissent and political opposition — including the arrest of thousands of protesters — rights groups have become the "remaining loud voice."
Zaree said pressure had paid off, but added: "The danger is still there. We have just put off the battle for survival."