Egypt's protest law still fuels civil society doubts

Ayat Al-Tawy, Thursday 7 Nov 2013

Rights groups say draft protest bill falls far short of protecting the freedom of assembly and must be amended

Demonstrators confront riot police
Demonstrators confront riot police in Alexandria Egypt, Tuesday Jan. 25, 2011. Thousands of protesters marched in Alexandria Tuesday in what was dubbed a "Day of Rage" against Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and lack of political freedoms under his rule. (Photo: AP)

An Egyptian human rights umbrella group has voiced deep scepticism over a draft law regulating the right to protest and assembly in Egypt that has drawn a chorus of denunciation since being approved by the cabinet in early October.

The Rights Organisation Alliance, a watchdog of around 30 rights group, has introduced 11 major amendments to the disputed bill that civil groups say falls well short of protecting freedoms of assembly and promotes heavy-handedness by the state.

Critics argue the bill would allow authorities to unduly deny consent for any planned protests, providing for a hail of bureaucratic hurdles.

The group's campaigners say the law is equivocal and loosely-defined, deeming “hampering the interests of citizens,” "delaying traffic," or “affecting the course of justice" as justifications to ban sit-ins and labour strikes.

"Authorities did not bear in mind that assemblies naturally disrupt normal life and that the responsibility falls on the government to strike a balance between conflicting interests without resorting to a blanket ban," said human rights lawyer and activist Gamal Eid.

The watchdog demanded that the required notification by protest organisers to local police stations be a mere 24 hours in advance, a group's official told Al-Ahram Arabic news website. The current draft requires notice of seven days for any planned public meeting, demonstration, or procession involving more than 10 people.

On 10 October, the cabinet rubber-stamped the law drafted by the Ministry of Justice and referred it to Interim President Adly Mansour for ratification — expected next week. But officials say they are weighing misgivings voiced by civil groups after a national dialogue with authorities, with some tweaks having already been made, according to Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi.

Street movements have been instrumental in shaping Egypt's political life, bringing down two regimes in the past two and a half years. Massive street protests led to the toppling of long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and prompted Egypt's military to oust Mohamed Morsi, the country's first freely elected president, two years later.

Criminalising protests

The Egyptian rights grouping also slammed listing crimes, including assaults on public or private property, as constraints on public assembly, contending that such acts of violence are already clearly criminalised in the country's penal code.

It proposes scrapping a provision that gives the interior ministry absolute discretion to ban public assembly, merely on the grounds that it has “serious information” that organisers "intend" to commit a listed offense or any other crime. The provision, in effect, would allow the police to keep a tight rein on assemblies, the draft law's detractors say.

The bill also gives security forces the power to disperse unlawful peaceful protests with water cannons, tear gas and batons.

"Egypt’s authorities have ignored the lessons of past crackdowns that have left hundreds dead," Amnesty International said in October. "Instead of taking the steps urgently needed to rein in the security forces, they have proposed a law that treats peaceful protesters like criminals, and gives the security forces new powers to crush them. It entrenches abusive provisions already present in other Egyptian law," Amnesty added.

Under the draft, any assembly in places of worship, “for any purpose other than whorship," is banned, a phrasing analysts say would greatly hinder social gatherings held at churches and mosques in Egypt, suggesting the ban be limited to "political purposes." Loyalists of toppled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi have often converged around mosques since his overthrow in July.

The law also bans protests from taking place within a 100 to 300-metre radius of any government building, legislative council, public facility, ministry headquarters, or any police or military building, court, hospital, airport, educational institution, or any other place designated as off-limits by provincial governors. Rights activists demand this shielding area be reduced to 50 metres.

They also call for dispensing with a right given to local governors to set a maximum number of people participating in assemblies.

The rights grouping has also called for modifying a number of articles establishing imprisonment penalties and fines for a raft of breaches, rather restricting punishment to fines only. Violations penalised by prison sentences (up to 10 years) include attending a protest wearing a mask or face covering, taking part in an unauthorised protest, or being in possession of a weapon, explosives or ammunition. As the bill stands, such violations can carry fines up to LE500,000 ($72,500).

"If passed, the law would pave the way for more violations, given that local legislation does not attune to international standards, challenging the legitimacy of Egyptian authorities' policies," Eid said.

Islamists have called on supporters to stand up against what it labelled a "notorious" law that singles them out.

“[Authorities] can’t live without repressive laws that suppress freedoms,” Alaa Aboul Nasr of the ultra-conservative Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya group told Al-Ahram.

The hardline Islamist group vowed it would protest in defiance.

"We will protest against the law as soon as it is ratified, and we will be on the lookout," said Abu Al-Nasr, secretary general of Al-Gamaa's political wing, the Building and Development Party.

The Islamist group said authorities seek to pass the protest law to replace a state of emergency imposed by the army since mid-August amid crackdowns on Islamists. The state of emergency is due to expire 14 November.

London-based Amnesty Internaional had said that Egypt’s draft protest law is more repressive than a similar legislation proposed by Mohamed Morsi’s government when in power.

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