Harsh prison verdicts, prolonged remands, security violence, unfounded criminal charges, and other means of oppressing freedom of expression are prevalent in Egypt, promoted by Egypt’s controversial Protest Law of November 2013.
Although sparks of hope emerged for new legislative changes, human rights defenders warned that freedom of expression remains highly jeopardised under a regime that “has no interest in an open political sphere”.
In June 2016, the government of Prime Minister Sherif Ismail took the initiative to announce possible amendments to the law. Minister of Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Magdy El-Agaty formed a special committee to look into amendments to the law with the participation of members from the ministries of justice and interior.
In a statement to state media, El-Agaty claimed that suggestions sent by the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) and other human rights NGOs would be considered in the process. This came after he stated in May that the government had no intentions to amend the law, adding that it is one of the best laws in the world.
While the step was first welcomed by the state-affiliated NCHR, which is one of the major critics of the law, concerns were raised about the exclusion of civil and political figures in the process once more.
In a press conference held Monday at Al-Haqanya Law Centre, human rights speakers, including NCHR’s George Ishaak, warned of the government’s ignorance of their remarks on the Protest Law.
Moreover, the materialisation of aspirations to amend the law will be in the hands of the House of Representatives, in which the National Security Committee is most likely to strongly oppose the quest for freedoms.
Ishaak criticised the dangers to freedom of expression implied in the stances of some MPs against improving the law, claiming one member even demanded “death penalties” for protesters. “We need to pressure the parliament for amendments, according to international standards,” he said.
What should be fixed in the Protest Law
Those standards, also stated in constitutional Article 73, guarantee the right to assembly, organise public meetings, and hold peaceful protests in public spaces by “serving a notification to authorities”. Moreover, the right to peaceful and private assembly is “guaranteed without need for prior notification. Security forces may not attend, monitor, or eavesdrop on such meetings”.
However, the current Protest Law requires prior notification, including the specification of unpredictable details of protests such as the slogans that will be used. According to Karim Abdul Rady, a lawyer at the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), it is impossible to control what protesters might chant in a demonstration.
“What if anyone chants anything other than the stated? Will the organiser of the protest face trial over that?” Abdul Rady said during the conference, shedding light on the obstructive article.
But prior notification is not the main issue. Against the Constitution, Article 10 of the law gives security authorities the right to ban or change the location of a protest based on “serious information or evidence that the scheduled demonstration endangers public safety”.
In such cases, the person who requested to hold the protest should bring to court the annulment decision of the Ministry of Interior. Ishaak demanded the opposite, saying that the notification procedure should not be in the hands of the ministry for approval or rejection. He argued that if there are any objections by security, then they should be the ones to appeal against the holding of the protest before court.
Other major amendments insisted on by human rights advocates include the abolishment of all articles in the law that lead to prison penalties. NCHR demanded the replacement of all articles in the Protest Law that result in prison with reasonable fines, since crimes stated by the law are already punishable in the Penal Code, and on the assumption that protests should be peaceful in the first place, so violations should not be major.
Amending Protest Law not a guarantee of freedom of expression
Amid repeated denunciations by human rights defenders and some liberal political factions, the law greased the wheels for a deep security state and emergency law to fiercely return, despite the masses who took to the streets in 2011, voicing their demands to end decades of political repression.
Yet, rights lawyers claim that based on their experience, amending the law would not act as the sole barrier to security forces being able to commit violations. This applies to the use of force against protesters, to secret investigations and fabricated charges, to the attack on political dissidents and their arrest from home on charges of “inciting protests”.
Mahmoud Osman, a lawyer at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), highlighted such charges, stating that they are the reason for the prosecution of many citizens for peacefully expressing their opinions, outside the scope of the Protest Law itself.
In the Penal Code, incitement to anti-government protests is punishable by prison up to five years, in addition to a fine. “Similar articles are used to jail journalists. With such laws, the person does not even have to be on the streets to get criminalised. We reached a point where people are arrested from homes on charges of incitement,” Osman stated.
Security forces have targeted dozens of political and rights activists, civil society workers, and journalists, and raided their houses, especially ahead of schedule or possible protests such as the anniversary of the 25 January Revolution.
Recently, many were taken ahead of the announced ‘Red Sea islands’ demonstrations on 25 April. The case of detained rights lawyer Malek Adly is one that illustrates Osman’s claims. Adly faces charges that include inciting anti-state protests.
The battle against freedom through security
“The mentality of the legislator is seeking how to oppress freedom of expression, not how to organise it,” explained Abdul Rady.
Abdul Rady and Al-Haqanya’s lawyer Mohamed Abdel Aziz further argued that the Protest Law was not only designed to silence voices, but also to give the green light for police use of force. They criticised the lack of penalties applied to officers in the cases where violations are committed.
In Article 12 of the Protest Law, the police are authorised to disperse demonstrations, after a verbal warning, using water hoses, tear gas, and police sticks. But in Article 13, the police can go further, by firing warning shots, throwing sound or smoke bombs, or using rubber or real birdshots, on grounds that police attempted the methods detailed in Article 12 but failed to contain the protest.
“Perhaps if the law existed before 25 January 2011, there would have been no trials held for former security leaders in the first place,” Abdul Rady said.
“There should be laws that provide protection to the citizens, just as much as the state cares to defend public and vital facilities,” Abdel Aziz added.
Lawyers also decried practices of arrests and prosecution on the sole grounds of “National Security investigations”, claiming that even in courts security officers refuse to disclose the source or nature of their information regardless of the fact that this information leads to penalties for supposedly committed crimes.
Osman showed a copy of the National Security report upon which his defendants in custody, the satirical band Street Children, face charges of inciting protests and publishing inappropriate videos online. The listed charges were solely based on information obtained by “secret trusted sources”.
In conclusion, freedom of expression remains at risk so long as the executive power remains above the law and the general political will goes against freedoms. This often results in the manipulation of laws whether by rewriting them or reinforcing them, argue lawyers, doubting the state’s real intention to amend the law.
As Osman put it, oppression begins the moment one starts making public his personal opinion. Still, Ishaak believes in holding on to this tiny bit of hope.