State-owned daily Al-Ahram sparked nation-wide debates last week after it leaked a controversial new draft law entitled “protection the revolution’s gains." The circulating articles, which bore a striking similarity to Egypt’s notorious 30-year-long emergency law, critics said threatened human rights and freedoms.
In the wake of the critical backlash by human rights activists and the media, Minister of State for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Mohamed Mahsoub quickly denied the existence of the draft law, saying it was “merely incorrect media speculation” on his Twitter account.
Nevertheless, his statement did not close the topic, as the alleged draft legislation was almost identical to an earlier law entitled the “protection of society from dangerous individuals” presented to President Mohamed Morsi by the Ministry of Interior, alongside five other restrictive laws, in August this year.
Ahram Online gained access to the six Interior Ministry draft laws, which also include legislation to "protect state supplies", "criminalise hindering of work flow and attacking public and private buildings", "protect the places of worship", "regulate protests in public streets" as well as a "proposal for a legal authority to help the president pass laws."
The laws were signed by the interior minister himself and were recently shown to NGO representatives by Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki during a meeting in September.
Super powers of the Interior Ministry
These six draft laws illustrate the will of the Interior Ministry to push through legislation that would give it an upper hand in the running of the state, grant it unlimited powers while suppressing freedoms and rights, at a time when there is no parliament.
The brutality of the security forces was a key grievance of the revolution which began on 25 January last year to coincide with Egypt's National Police Day.
Recent reports by Egyptian civil society show that the arbitrary arrest, detention and torture of citizens that was standard police practice backed up by emergency law, still continues even after the state of emergency was lifted and a new president was elected.
Creating laws such as "protecting the revolution" and "protecting society from dangerous individuals", activists and NGO workers told Ahram Online, is a way of legalising these practices without having to revive emergency law.
The first article of the alleged "dangerous individuals" legislation would allow security forces to detain suspects who "frequently commit criminal activity" or the police suspects "intend to commit a crime" for 30 days at any place the Interior Ministry decides upon.
They can also place the suspect under police surveillance and can ban them "from entering certain locations like their place of work."
This could be used against activists and workers to quell dissent in particular during political protests and industrial action.
In addition the law threatens workers who "stop or delay the flow of work in any public or private institution" with jail sentences or with crippling fines ranging from LE50, 000 ($9,000) to almost LE100, 000 ($18,000), as industrial action "hinders the production wheel." In short the law criminialises strikes.
Vague legislative wording
Another of the laws the Interior Ministry presented to Morsi was one regulating demonstrations. It appears to mix points from emergency legislation and an antiqued 1920s law, created to limit oppositional political activity during the British occupation.
Article 4 of the "the law to regulate protests in public streets" states that "organisers of a protest should notify the authorities at least three days ahead of the protest if it is intended to take place in a public street or square, in the vicinity of a general or public institution, a building of worship, around a foreign organisation including economic or financial ones or in the vicinity of an educational building."
The notification, reportedly, has to include the time, place and reasons for the protest, the path of the demonstrators and the numbers expected to show up.
Subsequently, the law reads, "the [interior] minister should notify the relevant ministry or institution in order to look into the demands of protesters, to try to solve their grievances or to meet the protesters before the announced time of the protest."
The Interior Ministry has the right to approve or reject the protest for security reasons and decide upon the time and place of the protest. In addition residents of the area can file a complaint if the demonstration is not in their interest.
Emad Mubarak, executive director of Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression, told Ahram Online that the articles are dangerous because they are “vague... which leaves things open to interpretation and gives the Interior Ministry the upper hand in everything.”
He questioned why the ministry needed to know the reasons behind the protest and why it should act as mediator between the protesters and who they are protesting against: “if you want to protest that usually means you have exhausted all other means.”
Article 5 of the same law states that "the notification should be signed by at least three people who enjoy a good reputation and who are not banned or halted from [exercising] their political rights. They are to be directly responsible for organising this protest, while protesters are also to be held responsible."
Mubarak again said the article was dangerously vague as it does not outline what constitutes a “reputable person” or who decides this. “Is it the interior minister? Many activists including myself were jailed during the time of Mubarak for joining or organising protests against the regime, apparently that makes us disreputable and gives us a criminal record," Mubarak pointed out.
Morsi's legal powers
The question asked by many is whether Morsi, who is Egypt’s first post-revolution democratically-elected president, would use the legislative authorities he granted himself in August, to pass the law?
As Egypt does not have a parliament, following its dissolution in July by the then ruling military council, Morsi vowed not to issue any laws unless “absolutely necessary.”
In fact in the September meeting between human rights activists, civil society representatives and the justice minister, Mekki gave clear assurances that the president would only use his legislative powers if it were needed to lift constraints on human rights and freedoms.
"We discussed human rights violations and torture in detention and we discussed laws regulating freedom of expressions," recalled veteran rights advocate Gamal Eid, who attended the meeting.
Eid is currently working on amendments to seven articlesin the penal code that currently limit the media and freedom of expression, ready to be presented to the upcoming parliament when it is elected.
He is also alarmed by this draft legislation. "l am afraid they are preparing the public opinion for the worst, the Egyptian state has the habit of using balloon tests like this when they are preparing a bomb," he added.
Ehab Salam, a lawyer and human rights activist, agrees with Eid that leaking proposed laws to the press is standard practice of the regime "to spread a rumour and see how the public react."Despite pointing to the dangers of this legislation, Salam believes that it would be very difficult to implement in post-revolution Egypt.
"During the time of prime minister Essam Sharaf, the government passed a law that criminalised labour strikes and even though they managed to issue the law, it was not applied," Salam explained.
Nevertheless Salam is concerned because "we can always fight against a temporary or Emergency Law, but a fixed law could be a disaster."
An Egypt without repressive laws?
Mubarak believes that the Ministry of Interior can only function under emergency law.
"One generation of police officers after the other has only worked within emergency laws, the only way they know how to enforce law and order is by extreme measures like torture, random arrests and other notorious measures," said Mubarak, who laments that the fact that the philosophy behind the laws is how to prevent protests rather than how to allow them.
The question is, can the Egyptian state restore law and order while protecting the rights and freedoms of citizens and without resorting to exceptional legislation?
According to Salam, any democratic state should be able to do so.
"The idea behind the law should never be to protect the state from the protesters or strikers, it should be the other way around, how to secure citizens while they freely express themselves."
Prominent human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif El-Islam, who was among those the September meeting between the justice minister and rights activist, believes the laws express a strong will by the Interior Ministry but says there is no proof that the government and president want to adopt the laws yet.
"I think Morsi will not use his legislative powers, at least not now, because the parliamentary elections are approaching and this is not in the interest of the Brotherhood," said Seif who believes that even though Morsi recently resigned from the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party, still his interests are still aligned with the Brotherhood.
"He is more likely to avoid any actions that could provoke criticism,” added Seif, “on the contrary, he may even take decisions that make him more popular prior to elections.”