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Egypt’s New Protest Law Sparks Controversy

The law is worse than anticipated and probably unconstitutional.
Military personnel stand next to an armoured personnel carrier during a protest near Al-Azhar University in Cairo October 20, 2013. Egyptian security forces fired bird shot and tear gas to prevent supporters of deposed Islamist President Mohamed Mursi from marching on Sunday to the site of a protest camp at Rabaa al-Adaweya mosque that was destroyed two months ago, a Reuters witness said. The crowd of about 500 people were students from Al-Azhar University. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany (EGYPT  - Tags: POLIT

Egypt’s new draft protest law, which had been written for some time by the Ministry of Justice and was now just submitted by the Cabinet to the interim president for his signature (after one week of public debate), has caused a firestorm.

Leading liberal politician Wahid Abdel Meguid wrote an op-ed, wondering in the headline whether “the English occupiers were more merciful to us.” Among others, Al-Dostour, Mohamed ElBaradei’s party, has unabashedly denounced the draft and Abdel-Mon’eim Abul-Fotouh’s Strong Egypt Party has lambasted it, while even the Social Democratic Party (which holds the highest two positions in the Cabinet) and its head have reportedly criticized the law in no uncertain terms. One writer even described the draft as a “project to end the dream of change.” A Salafist Al-Nour Party spokesman stated that it was an example of “dangerous legislation,” while another said it “tears down the gains of the Jan. 25 revolution.” Amnesty International said the law “paved the way for further bloodshed” and is “more repressive than similar legislation proposed by [deposed President] Mohammed Morsi’s government.” One report even suggested that the deputy prime minister, the leading figure in the beleaguered moderate wing of the government, is leading a minority opposition inside the Cabinet against the legislation. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine that the administration has been taken aback by the political backlash against the law, especially as some had imagined much of the former liberal opposition as largely pacified by now.

There are many elements and influences involved in the debate over the the law. For one, the right to protest is generally considered to be one of the primary “gains” of the January revolution, often attributed a certain sacredness when discussed in the abstract and remaining a sensitive debate issue. Protests remain arguably the most prominent tool of public political action and expression as post-January Egypt continues to develop politically. On the other hand, Egypt has been the scene of an avalanche of protests and sit-ins of various sizes and causes since the beginning of 2011 (one report counted 1,354 protests in March of 2013 alone, and these protests have increasingly been rocked by violence and confrontation (whose start, causes and details are often contested). Public complaints and exhaustion have increased over this deluge of continued protest, and especially with regard to tactics such as road blocking or intimidation. The media has been vociferously drumming up support for stricter measures to control the flood as of late, especially in light of the continued pro-Morsi protests and the clashes that often ensue.

The current government finds itself caught between various influences. The first is that, to some extent, the administration does not want to be seen as drafting a law specifically to combat the pro-Morsi side’s unending demonstrations, and to be interested in a lasting universal law. It theoretically also needs to argue it is more progressive than Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose own draft law on protests was widely denounced. It would not want to play into the frame of Egypt going back to the days of former President Hosni Mubarak, as many continue to make the argument that Egypt is being regained by the ancien regime. There is also a need to look strong and appease an impatient and agitated percentage of the population that wants to see a modicum of stability and rule of law imposed in the country and that is still dissatisfied with the government’s performance across the board.

Several controversies surround the new draft law, chief among them the debate over whether such a matter should be legislated on by an interim government rather than a sitting parliament, and whether current legislation was not already sufficient. Then, there are the more technical elements of the legislation. Here are examples:

Article 7 of the law appears to outlaw sit-ins in general, which has caused much uproar. The same article also contains vague language that prohibits protests and public gatherings that “disrupt security, general order … delays and disrupts the interests of citizens … [and] influence the course of justice,” among others, opening the door for the use of such language to basically free the hands of the security forces.

Article 23 also bans spontaneous protests — ostensibly most of the demonstrations since 2011 — and limit them in Article 17 to what will become governor-designated free-speech zones of fixed maximum capacities. Anyone who breaks such a rule would be fined 1,000-5,000 Egyptian pounds ($142- $714). Instead, according to Article 8, organizers of the protest need to submit a “notification” of the protest “seven working days” before it convenes to the Interior Ministry (reportedly up from 24 hours in an earlier draft and three days in Morsi’s), a preposterous impracticality. This notification would include the timing of the protest and its duration, exact line of movement, contact information for the organizers, reasons for and demands of the protest (which the Interior Ministry is asked to convey to the proper authority in an effort to resolve). During these “seven working days,” Article 11 says that if the minister or the head of security for the governorate obtains “sufficient information and proof” of legal violations involving this protest, that official could stop the event. Organizers would then be left to hope for the chance to argue and win a quick judgement from the judiciary reversing the ministry’s decision. Interestingly, an earlier draft published in Ahram (as well as Morsi’s draft) had stipulated the Interior Ministry as the entity that would ask permission from the judiciary to move or cancel a protest, not the other way around.

Article 16 lets the governor designate a perimeter of 100-300 meters in radius (up from 50-100 meters in an earlier draft) that protests cannot go beyond when it comes to pretty much all state and security institutions, archeological locations, international organizations, embassies and any location the government deems appropriate. Critics state the obvious: This does not make much sense, and renders much of the act of protest largely ineffective and mute. Article 20 also imprisons and fines anyone who received cash or in-kind benefits to organize public gatherings or protests that violate Article 6, which bans carrying weaponry, explosives or face covers. Article 20 also punishes those who "mediate" such an effort or anyone who incites that kind of crime even if it does not take place. Again, while much can be argued in favor of the principles at hand, there is much theoretical room for abuse, at least as the wording stands.

Article 10 also calls on the minister of the interior to form a committee in each governorate to determine measures to safeguard protests within it and how to deal with non-peaceful acts. The language has also been criticized by some as too vague, potentially creating too many hurdles that would render effective protests very difficult to organize to begin with. In addition, the wording Article 12 seems to give the prerogative to the field leader present to directly disperse the entire protest himself if some of its members commit a crime or forsake peaceful behavior, without making stipulations for proportionality and gradualism. This worry becomes more potent given how the former regime often planted thugs in protests who would act in a violent manner and necessitate interference by the police.

There is also some debate over how proportional the stated punishments are to the crimes they correspond to. Some also make the argument that the draft somewhat widens the capacity to use live ammunition than is already permitted, which is an argument I’m still attempting to more thoroughly investigate.

Ultimately, perhaps the most distressing element of the entire controversy is not only how heavy handed the law appears to be, but how much worse the final draft is compared to earlier leaks that had been widely criticized, and how arguably worse it seems compared even to Morsi’s draft law, further suggesting a more hawkish resolve within the administration. Practically speaking, this law, as it stands, rather paralyzes the right to protest rather than regulates its practice. Furthermore, it is more likely to backfire, as there will be simply no way to curtail Egypt’s flood of protests using the measures stated by the law without forceful confrontations that will inevitably cause further protests in consequence. The result is an iron-fisted law that ends up virtually unimplemented, weakening the image of the administration, the opposite of its intention. Moreover, this draft law will likely be found unconstitutional under Egypt’s upcoming charter, whose articles — as they reportedly stand — explicitly protect the rights to strike, protest and hold sit-ins. 

There is much that the government can theoretically do with less controversy to increase security and bring a degree of order to Egypt, including specialized training for security personnel on how to professionally deal with such situations. Wide legal reform on the subject is also best approached by an elected parliament. But whatever the government insists needs to be immediately achieved through legal measures, it will simply not succeed without wide political and public backing, without the law being realistic in what it hopes to achieve and without true protection of the right to protest.

UPDATE: The deputy prime minister has just released a statement in which he speaks of a meeting yesterday, Oct. 21, with political-party and civil-society representatives who widely denounced the law, stating that it and the new anti-terrorism law would be best delayed for discussion and issued by parliament.

Bassem Sabry is an Egyptian political writer and commentator. On Twitter: @Bassem_Sabry

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