Several Egyptian parliamentarians have welcomed the government’s announcement on Wednesday that the country’s controversial protest law would soon be amended, while saying they were preparing their own proposals for changes.
On Thursday, Alaa Abed, the head of the parliamentary bloc for the liberal Free Egyptians Party, which has campaigned for parliament on a promise to attempt to amend the law, said that the party is currently studying several drafts for the law before submitting its own proposals to parliament.
"Parliament will study all [drafts], whether submitted by the government or by MPs," said Abed, whose party holds the most representatives of any party in the 596-member legislature with 65 seats.
On Wednesday, Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Magdi El-Agati announced that a "government committee will soon meet to amend the protest law to go in line with the 2014 constitution."
The law, which mandates stiff prison terms of up to three years in jail as well as hefty fines for those who protest without a government permit, was passed in November 2013 during the turbulent period that followed the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
The authorities have applied the law since its was first implemented to jail thousands of protesters, mostly supporters of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood group but also hundreds of non-Islamist demonstrators.
Critics say that the law – which mandates stiff prison terms of up to three years in prison and heavy fines for those who protest without a government permit – infringes on the constitutional right of citizens to hold peaceful protests, including street demonstrations.
Article 73 of the constitution states that "citizens shall have the right to organize public meetings, marches, demonstrations and all forms of peaceful protests, without carrying arms of any kind, by serving a notification as regulated by Law."
Mohamed Esmat El-Sadat, an independent liberal MP and head of parliament’s Human Rights Committee, was one of those MPs who welcomed changing some articles in the protest law which criminalise peaceful demonstrations.
El-Sadat, a critic of tough penalties for protesters in the law, called on the government to take in account recommendations by the semi-governmental National Council on Human Rights (NCHR) as well as NGOs while preparing a final draft.
The NHCR has long lobbied the government to pass of a new version of the law that only regulates peaceful protests but not criminalise them, and eliminates articles that violate the constitution.
On Thursday, the NHCR issued a statement reiterating its stance that the protest law was in essence conflating street protests with terrorism and threats to state institutions.
An official discussion by the parliament on the Protest Law would mark the first time the legislature, which convened in January 2016, reviews the law since it was first passed in 2013.
The law was not among 340 legislations passed by the executive in the absence of a legislature revised by the current parliament as mandated by the 2014 constitution since it was issued before the charter was approved by the electorate.
El-Agati said that the committee in charge of amending the law would include government legal advisors.
"They will study the articles imposing penalties on violators of the law in order to make it easier to organise peaceful protests," El-Agati told reporters on Wednesday.
"The committee can also seek the advice of independent legal experts and human rights organisations, and it will review protest laws issued in different countries to [determine if Egypt's law] is significantly tougher."
Leftist independent MP Haitham El-Hariri said in press statements on Thursday that amending the law “will send an important message locally and abroad that Egypt is a state that respects human rights and freedom of expression.”
The Alexandria representative sent his own proposals for amendments, which were also based on the recommendations of the NHCR to the speaker of the parliament Ali Abdel-Al shortly after El-Agaty's announcement.
Earlier in the week, before El-Agaty's announcement, El-Sadat urged the government to pardon those prisoners jailed based on the Protest Law who have not committed any violent acts, saying the state needs to defuse tensions with Egypt's youth.
The government has on more than one occasion pardoned prisoners jailed based on the protest law and appeals courts have also reduced some of the sentences meted out to defendants by lower courts.