On 23 March 2011, under the rule of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and two months after the 25 January Revolution, the then-cabinet of Essam Sharaf approved a protest law that criminalised strikes, protests, demonstrations and sit-ins that “interrupt private or state owned businesses or affect the economy in any way”. The law stipulates a prison sentence and a fine of up to EGP 50,000 for anyone who “takes part in or encourages others” to join a sit-in or any other activity that prevents, delays or disrupts the work of public institutions or public authorities. If there is any violence or if protests damage public or private property, or lead to the “destruction of means of production” or cause harm to “national unity and public security and order”, the fine rises to EGP 500,000 with at least a year’s imprisonment.
Human rights groups, activists and the media went into a frenzy over that proposed law, and in fact Egyptians took to the streets the next Friday to oppose it. Political groups had then called for a “societal dialogue” to discuss the law before SCAF ratified it. To everyone’s surprise, on 12 April 2011, SCAF approved the law and it was published in the official state paper. The law was only to be valid during a national state of emergency; that said, the country has been under such conditions since 1967, with only two breaks – one for 18 months in 1980 and another for seven months in 2012. This law, though ratified by SCAF, was never implemented and Egyptians continued to take to the streets with the same demands of freedom, democracy, and social justice, with security forces continuing their violent dispersal of protests and sit-ins all through 2011. And although thousands of people were detained during that period, they in fact faced military trials and were not tried in civil courts under the protest law. The law died as quietly as it was issued.
On 30 December 2012, under former president Morsi’s rule, the Islamist Shura Council (which was tasked with legislation after parliament was dissolved) proposed another protest law which did allow demonstrations but under several impossible rules – including coordination with Ministry of Interior! The law also stipulated that protests would be allowed between 7 am and 7 pm, and would require the protest organiser to inform security forces of the location and timing of the scheduled protest before holding it. It further gave security forces the right to attend or prevent meetings of protest organisers, if they were perceived as “threatening national security and state order.” According to the law, security forces could also end the protest, if it is “threatening national security.”
That law was never ratified by Morsi, probably because of the row it created and its proximity to his infamous November 2012 “constitutional declaration” that initiated his downfall and a tiring phase of protests around his palace. That law died in the Shura Council where it was born.
On 10 October 2013, under military-backed president Adly Mansour, the Al Beblawi’s cabinet approved yet another protest law, with the same and more horrendous articles criminalising protests and sit ins, paving the way to more bloodshed and detentions, as Amnesty International along with several human rights groups and political powers warned.
This time around however things are different, given the dire situation Egyptians are in now. With a two-month long curfew that doesn’t seem to be lifted anytime soon, the horrendous economic crisis we are in, and the continuous road blockage by pro-Morsi protests, and with the accompanying violence and deaths, the protest law is not facing wide public rejection (except from the relentless human rights activists who have been under harsh attacks since SCAF rule and until this day, but still holding their ground, thankfully).
So now, we are hearing rhetoric that is both disturbing and frustrating, along the lines of “let the state tighten its grip over protesters, we have had enough”, and “it is time to work and stop protests, we need to eat”, and “what has protesting done so far except damage to the whole country”.
Indeed, what has protesting accomplished? So far, none of the demands of 25 January have been met. The first demand, the first spark for that revolution, was to bring an end to the interior ministry’s brutality. Reforming that institution was the first reason people took to the streets (remember Khaled Said, whose killers are acquitted?) and now the protest law requires that same institution’s blessing to allow people to take to the streets. What happens now when Egyptians decide again to rise up against the brutal ministry? Go get approval from the ministry for their route, give the ministry the names and addresses and phone numbers of the organisers? Hell, you might as well detain yourself right then and there!
But then again, this is Egypt, where no law is enforced and those who should enforce it are the first ones to break it, so no need to fret. Right now, and without any law put in place, the amazing Ministry of Interior detains anyone anytime and for charges we only saw in movies criticising Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule. Charges like distributing “papers” calling for protests, being in possession of the yellow Rabaa sign, or having “anti-regime documents” on your computer… and this is without even having protested yet! People are being tortured, sometimes to death, in detention facilities and police stations during questioning for such ridiculous charges. No need for a law or a fine or a prison sentence; our police are taking matters in their own hands anyway, and who is to tell them not to? Who is to hold them accountable? No one did during Mubarak’s rule, nor SCAF rule, nor Morsi’s rule, and obviously not now (whoever’s rule this is!)
Almost three years after Egyptians revolted against tyranny, corruption, and the impunity of the police, our rulers insist on giving that institution even more power and more authority over us. Any protest law under such an institution will not be followed, and people will continue asking for their God-given and inalienable rights. Egyptians, ALL Egyptians, have a right to freedom, democracy, social justice, dignity… and the right to protest!