Twilight in Tahrir: Egypt law aims to sharply curb protest

A new law requires that those organizing a demonstration or open meeting get advance approval from Egyptian police, who can ban such gatherings at will. 

Mohamed Abd El Ghany
Riot police took positions as students of Cairo University commemorated on Sunday the passing of 100 days since security forces cleared vigils in support of ousted President Mohamed Morsi. The interim president signed a new law the same day that rights groups say severely curtails the rights of citizens to assemble and protest peacefully.

Egypt's interim president issued a new law regulating protests that has been heavily criticized by rights groups for being overly restrictive, including allowing police to ban demonstrations without justification.

The law is one of several recently proposed by the government that would give authorities broad discretion to shut down dissent, leading to charges that interim military-backed government is seeking to clamp down on freedoms. While the final law is not yet published, an earlier draft of the protest law would require those organizing demonstrations – or even open meetings with more than 10 people – to seek police approval three working days before, and would give police carte blanche to deny approval.

The message being sent is clear, says Mohamed Zaree, Egypt program manager at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights: Officials want to normalize the exceptional authority they enjoyed under a state of emergency that endured for much of the past three decades. By giving the police broad discretion to arrest demonstrators and break up protests, some see the new law as a way for the new government to keep a firm grip on power and nip opposition in the bud. 

“They want to substitute a state of emergency that is limited by time with a continuous state of emergency that will last not only in emergency cases but will last forever,” he says. “They want to make the state of emergency natural by law.”

Former President Hosni Mubarak, toppled in a 2011 popular uprising, kept a state of emergency in place throughout most of his nearly 30 year rule. That gave police broad arrest powers, violated many civil liberties, and helped fuel a culture of impunity for police abuse that was one of the main grievances during the uprising against Mubarak.

Nov. 14 marked the expiration of a three-month state of emergency that had been imposed since Aug. 14, when police stormed two sit-ins supportive of ousted President Mohamed Morsi, killing hundreds of people. According to the interim constitution adopted after the military deposed Morsi, the state of emergency cannot be extended more than three months without a popular referendum. Interim President Adly Mansour currently holds legislative authority.

The new protest law requires people to inform the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, three working days before a protest or public meeting or gathering of more than 10 people. A chief complaint of rights groups is that it allows police to ban such gatherings without justification, and does not require them to obtain a court order to do so.

“The worst thing is the fact that the Interior Ministry has absolute discretion to ban any demonstration,” says Heba Morayef, Egypt director for Human Rights Watch.

“We're back to where we were under the existing Mubarak-era laws, which was the Ministry of Interior were ultimately able to completely control” protests and gatherings, she adds.

Collective punishment

The law includes “public meetings” in the categories of gatherings people must notify the Interior Ministry of. That means all organizations are prohibited from holding press conferences or open meetings, for example, without the three-day notification, and authorities can ban any such meeting.

Rights advocates say the grounds on which forcible dispersal of protests are permitted under the law are overly broad, and allow for collective punishment of the demonstration. Under the law, if one participant in a protest contravenes the law, that gives police grounds to disperse the entire gathering.

Rights advocates say the law also contains overly broad language that restricts the right to protest, giving authorities vast leeway to ban or disperse a protest. The law says the right to public assembly does not include “impeding the interests of citizens” or “influencing the course of justice.” According to a Human Rights Watch statement, that language could lead to the dispersal of any protests “calling for the release of political prisoners or the prosecution of security officials.”

“The way this is drafted is really just designed to give the government more grounds to ban a protest,” says Morayef.

The law is a version of the restrictive law on protests that was considered under Morsi, whose government also proposed laws heavily criticized by rights advocates. A presidential spokesman and an adviser to the president did not return requests for comment.

Public support

Despite criticism by rights groups, the level of public support for the law is unclear. While a wide array of political figures, activist groups, and rights defenders have criticized the law, many Egyptians have grown weary of demonstrations that snarl traffic and slow economic recovery. A recent poll in Egypt found that 57 percent of Egyptians support the protest law.

Rights advocates have raised alarms in recent weeks after progression on the protest law was accompanied by government proposals for other restrictive laws. One would impose strict penalties, including up to four years in jail, for graffiti. Another, with two different versions proposed by Justice and Interior ministries, was an antiterrorism law that rights advocates said was one of the worst they had seen in decades.

A joint statement by 20 Egyptian rights organizations warned that the proposed law would “serve as the legal basis for the re-establishment of the police state seen in Egypt prior to January 25, 2011, when numerous exceptional policies and laws had given free rein to the security apparatus to violate the rights and freedoms of citizens in the name of “countering terrorism.”

After the government proposed draft laws, the Interior minister declared the ministry would seek amendments to the penal code instead of passing an entirely new law. But last week, a cabinet spokesman said the government was waiting for the law to be issued. Zaree says that even if the government chose to amend the penal code instead of write a new law, the same overly vague language and rights restrictions were likely to result.

Since the military coup, the government and state and private media have repeatedly portrayed the crackdown on Islamists as Egypt as fighting a war against terrorism. In addition to killing more than 1,300 people since July, authorities have also arrested and detained thousands of people. Meanwhile, a low-level insurgency is ongoing, with near daily attacks on police and security forces both within the restive Sinai peninsula and the rest of Egypt, and assassinations and attempts on security officials.

Zaree says authorities use the terrorism rhetoric to bolster public support for the crackdown and restrictive laws, as in the case of the protest law and the possible anti-terrorism law.

“The message is that ... that there will not be respect for freedoms or human rights, because we have a war against terrorism that you should support, and you should wait for the respect for human rights until this war on terrorism has ended," says Zaree." And nobody knows when it will end and what it is exactly.”

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