Egypt activists stress their call for laws that safeguard rights

Dina Ezzat, Thursday 28 Nov 2013

Some government critics argue that a new protest law is just the latest of a raft of restrictive measures being pushed through by the authorities

Talaat Harb
Egyptian activists, including a man holding a placard reading,"the revolution continues," hold a protest in Talaat Harb Square in Downtown, Cairo, Egypt (Photo: Reuters)

The committee responsible for amending Egypt’s constitution is nearing the end of its work, according to its spokesman.

Mohamed Salmawi said on Wednesday that the final draft will be completed in early December, ready to be put to referendum in late December or early January.

The new constitution, which is designed to replace the charter adopted last year under the rule of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi, is promising, according to Salmawi and other liberal members of the drafting committee.

Amr Moussa, the committee’s chairman, said last week that the final constitution might require further amendments in the future but would nonetheless be a solid base for ensuring rights and freedoms.

Some of the articles in the draft text have faced fierce criticism, however, including a section that relates to the trial of civilians before military courts if they are accused of crimes related to military interests, properties and personnel.

Supporters of the relevant article within the committee argued that it had reduced the scope of military trials and that it is only meant to be a temporary measure.

“Let us be realistic here; we did have to swallow a few things the army wanted in order to have a decent chapter on human rights in the constitution; this we did knowing that it is only a temporary arrangement and that there would be pressure from civil society that would make the army think twice really before referring a civilian to a military court. It is not a perfect world and the road towards democracy is never a walk in a park,” said a leading member of the sub-committee in charge of drafting sections on freedoms, who asked to remain anonymous.

Protest law interrupts work

However, this week, the passing of a new law on protests undermined the stance of the liberal forces within the drafting committee as anger erupted over the provisions of a law that many activists insist is set to curtail freedoms.

On Tuesday evening, the work of the committee was temporarily as demonstrators protesting the new law gathered outside the Shura Council building in central Cairo where the drafting committee convenes.

“The demonstrations of yesterday had a clear message that the revolutionary forces’ determination to pursue freedoms will not be challenged or sidelined under the pretext of combating terrorism or out of fear of the forces of political Islam; our stance on freedoms is firm,” said Ahmed Hishmat, an activist and lawyer.

Hishmat added that the fact that the Tuesday evening demonstrations were “strictly non-Islamist and organised by an uncompromised revolutionary corps that has clear issues with many of the positions of Islamists.”

Hishmat anticipated that the “uncompromising reaction to the demonstrations law which is still to manifest itself through continued demonstrations today and over the coming days” would “force the government to think a million times before it moves on with issuing a couple” of other controversial laws that have been in the making -- one on counter-terrorism measures and one on the operation of NGOs.

According to political researcher Mohamed El-Agati, these laws introduce “for the most part excessively restrictive measures that make it hard for those who want to demonstrate and those who want to work through the mechanism of civil society, and make it easy for the police to target individuals for alleged terror charges and even to stop graffiti.”

“These laws are certainly not designed to help the cause of liberties and freedoms – even if there is some positive language here and there in some of the text. For the most part they offer an oppressive or at least excessively restrictive approach,” he said.

According to Gamal Eid, a prominent human rights activist and lawyer, “these laws are being drafted by the legal associates of the Hosni Mubarak regime and they are simply trying to re-introduce the restrictive and intimidating atmosphere that was in fact the real cause of the 25 January revolution; and they are being suggested as a national security prerequisite. This is not national security that we have at stake but rather the security of the regime.”

Western diplomats sceptical

According to several western diplomats in Cairo, these laws do not help the cause of democratic transition.

“They are certainly not very helpful for the image of the government and the authorities of Egypt who have been trying very hard to convince the world that the removal of former president Mohamed Morsi (in July) was not a coup,” said a European ambassador who asked to remain anonymous.

“We are not intervening but we have to say that if you want to convince us that what happened was not a coup, then please do not act like the authorities of a coup would,” he added.

In the words of another European diplomat: “the issue for us is no longer whether what happened on 3 July was a coup or not, but rather whether the current authorities in Egypt are planning to do what it takes to make democracy happen.”

“We know that democracy is not a process to accomplish overnight but we also know that there are certain basics that any government has to embrace if it wishes to make democracy a reality, and in all honesty the demonstration law and the drafts we have seen of the anti-terror law and the law to regulate graffiti and NGOs are not really reassuring,” she said.

Battle within the government

“This is very disturbing because if we as liberal forces today allow ourselves to tolerate such anti-freedoms and anti-liberty bills then we would not have anyone other than ourselves to blame once the regime is done with the Islamists and starts to eliminate other opposition groupings; and this will inevitably happen because an oppressive state is just an oppressive state,” said political scientist Ahmed Abdullah.

Abdullah argues that the attempts made to accommodate the contempt in the liberal quarters over the text of the protests law and the other “freedom-curtailing bills” might have worked, but they were not at all successful at quelling the wide liberal anger against what “increasingly seems to be an attempt to re-introduce the apparatus of coercion.”

A government source told Ahram Online that the battle within the government has been to issue the protest law and a bill on counter-terrorism before the state of emergency expired on 14 November.

The interior minister failed to have his way and interim President Adly Mansour had almost decided to refer the matter to the discretion of a parliament to be elected early next year, the same source said. However, he added, “a few reports anticipating wide demonstrations over socio-economic matters and against the draft bill of the constitution prompted the president to adopt the law prior to the election of a legislative council.”

The source on Wednesday afternoon said that Mansour had declined proposals to suspend the law that he had just passed and asked the prime minister to consider offering reassurances.

The same source said that Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim is threatening to resign if the law is to be suspended or revised.

“We will see how things unfold over the next few days but while we have to worry about the angry protestors we also have to worry about those observers and political forces who have been accusing the government of being far too hesitant to take firm action to halt the endless demonstrations and to pursue stability.”

Despite the adoption of the demonstrations law, Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi has faced criticisms this week that he is too hesitant and indecisive. A source close to El-Beblawi told Ahram Online that “he knows that the interior minister is the source of this campaign, because he wants to resort to the old techniques of oppression of opposition, especially Islamists, which were used prior to the 25 January revolution, but the prime minister does not condone this -- well, not fully.”

The Nasser comparison

“What we are seeing for the most part today, especially with the proposed laws and of course through the leaks about the constitution, is an atmosphere that is trying hard to reconstruct the oppressive state; this is done under the pretext of recalling the era of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser – something that is impossible,” said Rabab El-Mahdi, a political scientist and commentator.

A popular leader who pursued a leftist agenda, Nasser’s policies were often restrictive of political freedoms. He also cracked down on the opposition, particularly Islamist groups.

Many of the admirers of military chief General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi have been comparing him to Nasser and have been calling on him to be as ruthless with the Islamists and as restrictive on freedoms as Nasser was.

El-Mahdi has particularly been critical of the pressure exerted within the government over the few cabinet members who have been trying hard to convince the interior minister and his large supporting bloc in the cabinet that security measures are not enough in and by themselves to rectify signs of instability.

“They don’t seem to be willing to think of anything else other than their animosity to the Islamist trend and their wish to have it stifled. This is not just a wish that is entertained by the security camp within the government because it is a much wider sentiment that is promoted by some commentators, journalists and other individuals whose line is that Islamists should be just smashed,” she said.

“El-Sisi, have them all smashed,” has been a line that many have used in the anti-Islamists demonstrations of the past few months.

The support shown for El-Sisi has justified an expanded crackdown against Islamists and supporters of former president Morsi, including violent dispersals of demonstrations, and various restrictive measures including the protest law and a decree by the higher council of universities that restricts the right of students to demonstrate and allow police to enter campuses to disperse demonstrations.

“It is simple and clear; if we keep our mouth shut then we will soon be living with an arsenal of legal provisions that could retract the key freedom gains that we made after the 25 January revolution. I don’t think the revolutionaries are planning to keep their mouth shut,” said Hishmat.

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