Egypt: The right to protest has been paid for
H.A. Hellyer, Saturday 26 Oct 2013
What Egypt needs, if stability is the sought-after goal, is not a law restricting protests, but laws establishing the parameters for interior ministry reform


Last week, the Egyptian interim cabinet passed a draft law to regulate protests. As per procedure, it sent it to the interim president, Adly Mansour, for approval. The new law gives the right to cancel, postpone or forcibly break up any protest to the Ministry of Interior (rather than the judiciary), and further restricts freedom of assembly, peaceful strikes and sit-ins, even if they do not constitute a threat to the security of citizens, or to private or public properties. It was then placed under review, in light of opposition from different political forces — even those that supported the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi — and is likely to be shelved until the election of a new parliament. But the law itself is interesting, as is the reaction to it.

Egyptians do not have a "right to protest" in the same way other nationalities do. The "protest" is not simply a right for Egyptians — the "protest" is intrinsic to the Egyptian polity. It isinconceivable to imagine the last three years of Egyptian history without taking into account the notion of protest. Any Egyptian law has to take that very much as a starting point: that Egyptians not only have the right of protest, but that such a right is inherent to the basis of this polity, and Egyptians have paid for that right with their blood, sweat and tears.

Instead, the Egyptian interim government, above the objections of its own deputy prime minister and others, drew up a law that seems to take little notice of this historical legacy. Indeed, the law seems better suited to an age where the abuses of the interior ministry were not central to the uprising in 2011 — where the very choice of revolting on 25 January 2011 was made because it was "Police Day." In a country where an interior ministry had a sterling track record in terms of "good engagement" with protestors, this law would be problematic owing to the amount of power it provides the ministry over protesters’ rights. In Egypt, it is not simply problematic — it verges on the utterly abysmal.

The basic function of law is to protect the rights of citizens from the state and government — not the other way around. A more specific aspect of this with regards to Egypt is the need for law to act as a check and balance against those institutions of the state that are in dire need of reform. This law seems instead to identify that the state is in need of protection from citizens, and that their collective right to protest against the state must be so restricted that it is difficult to see how any major protest of the past three years could have taken place under the auspices of this law.

It is important to put this law, thus, into the right frame, and against the backdrop of the right context. The context is clear: the interior ministry has a troubling history with regards to engaging with protesters. Invariably, abuses are reported by leading human rights organisations, and such reports continue. Those abuses are often the impetus for protests in the first place. Law, therefore, needs to establish clear limitations, and preferably punitive measures, on the interior ministry, rather than give it the ability to effectively organise (and thus possibly marginalise or neutralise) protests.

There is another aspect to the context here, and that is the political backdrop to this law. It is troubling enough that unjustifiable restrictions may become legalised, but the fear then is that they will become selectively (and thus politically) enforced. In a country in the midst of a deeply polarised and still very much tense political transition, any measure that might silence peaceful, critical voices must be challenged on the basis that it will prolong Egypt’s instability — not restore it. Where citizens feel enfranchised, and free to express their views subject to the use of non-violent means, a country’s political institutions become more respected and thus entrenched. Where citizens feel they live in a country where authoritarianism is legalised, those same institutions lose their respect, and instability becomes more likely. Egypt, of all countries, ought to know that.

The reaction was very clear, and represents perhaps the first time where the more security-sensitive trend within the state has been openly challenged and forced to backtrack since the military ouster of Morsi. Political forces lined up to reject the law, with the Social Democrats declaring its rejection of "the claim that the purpose of trying to pass this law is to protect the citizens." It went further, saying it has “repeatedly warned against a trend, within the authorities, pushing for the return of the security state under the pretext of 'fighting terrorism.'” When the party of both the prime minister and the deputy prime minister even mention the possible return of the security state, one has to pause very carefully.

The issue is not one of terrorism and security: such issues can, and ought to, be tackled in other legislation that is distinct from protest regulations. This is about a core freedom, and as such is not one that an interim government can appropriately tackle. Egypt’s security is not at threat here. There are many laws on the books already to protect that (actually, too many). The issue is the security of the individual protester, and their rights collectively — that is what the law should tackle.

Final question: Would Egyptian protesters really be expected to pay attention to such a law? It is doubtful. What would be less dubious would be the idea that a properly drafted law would place pressure on the interior ministry to reform — and that, more than any protest law, would be of far more worth to Egypt’s long term stability.

The writer is an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London, and a nonresident fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution. He tweets at @hahellyer.

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