After a brief discussion on Monday, Egypt's parliament – known as the House of Representatives – decided to postpone a vote on an amended version of the country's controversial protest law (law 107/2013).
Parliament speaker Ali Abdel-Aal told MPs that the vote on the amended law will be postponed because the required quorum of two-thirds of MPs was not achieved.
Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Omar Marawan said the new amendment of the protest law represents "a step on the road of democratization in Egypt."
"This is a new democratic step because it puts the interior ministry and ordinary citizens on equal footing before justice," said Marawan, arguing that "the amendment strips the interior minister and affiliated security chiefs of having a final say on street protests, in favour of granting the judiciary the absolute right in this respect."
"This means that if the interior ministry wants to impose a ban or postpone a street protest, it must refer first to the judiciary, and in accordance with the orders of the Supreme Constitutional Court in this respect," said Marawan.
The amended Article 10 of the new law now states that "if the interior minister or affiliated security chiefs decided that upon serious information and evidence that a planned street protest would pose a threat to security and peace, they would submit a request to judges affiliated with first-instance courts in advance to obtain their approval that the street protest, procession or general assembly be banned, postponed or transferred to a different place or its course be changed. Those who want to organize the protest can appeal the ban or the postponement decision in accordance with the civilian and commercial procedures law."
However, the brief discussion on Monday saw MPs divided into two camps: those who wanted to rid the law of any prison sentences, and those who insisted that the discussion should be confined to amending Article 10 in accordance with the orders of the Supreme Constitutional Court.
Minister Marawan said the government's amendment of the law covers Article 10 only, since this is in line with the ruling issued by the Supreme Constitutional Court on 3 December 2016. "The Court ruled that the protest law in general is in line with the constitution, and that Article 10 only should be amended," said Marawan.
Joining forces, parliament speaker Ali Abdel-Aal said the prison sentences stipulated in the law should be kept in place because they aim to deter those who exploit street protests from carrying out acts of subversion and sabotage.
"While the French protest law issued on 1913 includes harsh sentences, Egypt's protest law imposes penalties that are in proportion to the offences," said Abdel-Aal.
Mostafa Bakri, a journalist and independent MP, said, "The elimination of prison sentences in the protest law aims to spread chaos." He argued that "the Supreme Constitutional Court allowed street protests be organized under certain conditions without saying that prison sentences should be ruled unconstitutional."
On the other hand, Khaled Youssef, a high-profile film director and independent MP, criticized the government for "not moving more to rid the law of prison sentences."
Alaa Abed, head of parliament's human rights committee, said he had high hopes that the draft amendment would be discussed not only by the legislative and constitutional affairs committee.
"I thought the constitutional and legislative affairs committee would rid the law of any prison sentences and that this would be a good gift to the Egyptian people," said Abed, adding that "after 60 years of authoritarian rule, we hoped that Egyptians would have the right to express themselves in public protests without facing prison sentences."
Ayman Abu Elaa, an MP affiliated with the Free Egyptians Party, said the Youth Conference that was attended by president El-Sisi last year recommended that any stipulation of prison sentences be removed from the protest law.
In response, speaker Abdel-Aal said, "Those who think that Egypt has become one hundred per cent safe and secure are wrong. ... Attempts aimed at destabilizing this country are still underway and aim to exploit the protest law to achieve this objective," said Abdel-Aal, insisting that "prison sentences are important to prevent chaos and confusion."
According to a joint report prepared by parliament's committee on legislative and constitutional affairs and the committee on defence and national security, the government-drafted 25-article bill amends Egypt's 2013 law on the "regulation of public assemblies, processions and peaceful protests."
The amendment comes after the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled in December that Article 10 of the protest law is unconstitutional as it "grants the interior minister and security chiefs an absolute right to violate a basic freedom that is guaranteed by the new constitution," as stated in the committees' report.
"As a result, the amendment submitted by the government changes Article 10, to bring it in line with the Supreme Constitutional Court ruling and make sure that citizens have the right to organise street protests," the report said, adding that the amendment gives judicial authorities the final say over whether protests would be allowed.
"As a result, administrative authorities (the interior ministry and security directorates) will no longer under this amendment have the prerogative of deciding whether a street protest should be banned," said the report, "because administrative authorities – as decided by the Supreme Constitutional Court – cannot be neutral in this respect, [the matter] should be supervised and regulated by judges, who are more objective and unbiased."
Judges affiliated with first-circuit courts will be entrusted with upholding the constitutional right to public protest, according to the report.
"The judges will be more objective and will make sure that this constitutional right is observed by the interior ministry and that it is exercised in line with national security and public peace considerations," the report said.
If a first-circuit court judge decides that a street protest should be banned, the protest organisers will still have the right to appeal the decision.
The report argues that the amendment aims at satisfying two objectives: guaranteeing the right of citizens to organise peaceful public protests while observing national-security and public-order considerations.
"Many citizens have complained that street protests lead to disrupting public peace and even lead to national disasters and catastrophes," said the report, adding that "the amendment aims to secure a balance between the two rights."