If there is a genuine intention to revise the protest law, as recommended by the youth summit held in Sharm al-Sheikh last week and attended by the president, then this would be a positive, welcome step
But for the initiative to be celebrated, it must involve real, comprehensive change—it can’t be simply an attempt to burnish the country’s image. It must be accompanied by a repeal of other laws issued in the past two years that restrict freedoms. And it must demonstrate the state’s willingness to start fresh in how it approaches these issues.
The protest law adopted in November 2013 was presented as necessary to stop the violence and restore calm and stability. In fact, its real goal was to prohibit peaceful demonstrations, block open channels for protest, and gag troublesome youth voices and exclude them from politics.
Ordinary criminal law had and still has plenty of provisions to deter violence and sedition without need for an additional statute. Yet the protest law made peaceful protest a crime punishable by up to five years imprisonment, even if it entailed no violence, property destruction, or even blocking of traffic. The law led many Egyptians, especially youth, to withdraw their support from the nascent June 30 state.
The law has four primary flaws: 1) it restricts the right of peaceful demonstration by de facto requiring prior permission from the Interior Ministry, in violation of Article 73 of the constitution, which states that demonstrations can be organised after providing notice; 2) it defines a meeting of ten persons in one place as a demonstration punishable under the law, also in violation of constitutional rights upholding the freedom of assembly, association, and expression; 3); it places unrealistic restrictions on the right of peaceful protest, including by limiting demonstrations to certain places; and 4) it carries a penalty of up to five years imprisonment and a fine of LE100,000 for participation in a peaceful demonstration, even absent any violence, harm, or obstruction of the economy, which violates the constitutional principle of proportionality between crime and punishment.
Granted, every country regulates demonstrations and prescribes penalties for those who violate the regulations; no one is demanding that Egypt not have such law. But if there is a real intention to rectify this mistake and move forward, these flaws must be all be addressed within a legal framework that balances protection of society with the protection of citizens’ freedom and right to protest.
That’s the protest law. Other statutes that restrict freedoms include those that curb the freedom and activity of civil society, in particular Law 128/2014 (the ‘law of other things’) which carries a sentence of life imprisonment for ordinary citizens and death for civil servants who accept money, material, or "any other things" in violation of the law.
They also include laws which expand the jurisdiction of military courts to try civilians, in violation of constitutional regulations, and others that define a number of crimes in overly broad terms that do not meet the precision required by criminal statutes.
There are other problematic laws as well, such as those restricting freedom of expression on various grounds, most importantly defamation of religion, the protection of social peace, and the need to stop rumors that undermine that the national economy.
Limits should also be placed on the increased use of pretrial detention in a way that violates laws on criminal procedure, as well as travel bans, asset freezes, and other measures that have become a means to punish citizens without convictions in court.
The initiative should also include a comprehensive amnesty for prisoners of conscience and everyone sentenced to prison because of their participation in peaceful demonstrations or the expression of their opposition to state policies without involvement in violence or terrorism.
Most importantly, the state must be willing to change its approach to rights and liberties. It must realize that a reliance on security approaches alone to meet the challenges facing society is inadequate and will not bring security, stability, or economic development. It must open a new page to restore young people’s confidence in the country and their desire to participate, harness wasted energies, and mend the divisions in society.
If the state is seriously considering changes to the protest law, it’s not enough to amend an article here and there. It must have the courage and foresight to fundamentally change course, start fresh, and make a real breakthrough in the political climate. Half measures won’t cut it, but will just leave us retreading the same old ground.
*The writer holds a PhD in financial law from the London School of Economics. He is former deputy prime minister, former chairman of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority and former chairman of the General Authority for Investment.
A version of this article was published in Arabic in El-Shorouq newspaper on Monday, 31 October.