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Repression and legislation in Egypt

A number of laws that have been recently passed have a harmful impact on freedoms and contribute to the return of the state's 'repressive apparatus'

Ziad A Akl , Tuesday 26 May 2015
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Egypt has been struggling for democracy for some time now. Despite how some observers of Egyptian politics and society mark January 25th 2011 as a beginning of tangible efforts to implement a democratic regime-- after removing an authoritarian one-- the truth is that a series of events and efforts were taking place during the last decade of Mubarak’s rule.

This series of events peaked on January 25th and succeeded in mobilising mass protest and politicised collective action. However, the turn of events after Mubarak stepped down was not precisely democratic- it was rather fast, violent, polarised and un-free of political contention and state intervention.

Egypt was taken on a roller coaster of non-representative political processes, violent politicisation of religion and eventually unfortunate revolutionary outcomes. However, in the heels of Mohamed Morsi’s disastrous year in office, which was concluded after the events of June 30th 2013, the post 30/6 regime stressed its willingness to democratise the governing process through a road map of political processes that included a constitutional referendum, presidential elections and parliamentary elections. But almost two years later, Egypt finds itself still far from the democracy demands that were chanted in both episodes of mass protests in January 2011 and June 2013.

Moreover, the regime is still incapable of fulfilling the road-map it had envisioned a couple of years ago. The judicial and legislative authorities in the state are still incapable of reaching a constitutional formulation of a parliamentary elections law which will end the state of legislative void Egypt lives in. This is as a result of the absence of a legitimate legislative entity, or in other words, a parliament.

However, legislation in Egypt was not put on halt due to the absence of a parliament. On the contrary, Egypt has witnessed since June 30th a very active legislative process. The Egyptian constitution of 2014 allows the president the right to issue necessary legislation in the absence of a parliament.

Though the legislation that has been implemented has exceeded 300 laws passed by both the transitional President Adly Mansour and the recently elected President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. And it is indeed both understandable and acceptable for a President to practice his constitutional right to legislate as a necessity in the absence of a parliament.

The intensity of legislation is somewhat questionable though. Yet the point here is not the number of laws or the constitutional protocol under which they were passed, it is how a significant number of the passed laws contributed directly to resurrecting the state’s repressive apparatus, the very apparatus that was one of the main grievances people took to the streets over back in 2011.

The state’s “repressive apparatus” may be an elusive term somehow, which is why I will spend a little time attempting to explain what is meant by it. In most states, the “repressive apparatus” is usually a part of the executive branch of the state, represented most frequently by the police or other law enforcement institutions and bodies under different names.

However, in Egypt, the repressive apparatus is a little bit more sophisticated than that. In addition to the executive branch, the repressive apparatus in Egypt entails a matrix of security institutions that control the public sphere, the media, and the bureaucracy and intervenes in nominations for those appointed in the judiciary, state-owned media institutions and the diplomatic corps.

During Mubarak’s 30-year reign over Egypt, these institutions were given enormous room to practice all forms of supervision, censorship and repression. Moreover, the police-- specifically during Habib Al-Adly’s era-- were granted excessive authorities to act as a tool of political repression, committing all forms of civil and human rights violations imaginable. The Mubarak regime found in the Egyptian emergency law the perfect umbrella to justify the actions of this repressive apparatus.

It is vital here to note that this is not the manner in which the post 30/6 regime operates. While the Mubarak regime found an overarching justification for this repression in the emergency law, the current regime is careful to devise specific legislation which allows room for the different security institutions to practice different forms of repression over various slices of the political landscape and the public sphere in general.

The current regime justifies these legislations under the umbrella of terrorist threats and national security concerns. And there is absolutely no doubt that Egypt faces a major threat from new and old terrorist organisations, a threat that cannot and should not be ignored by the ruling regime.

Though the question here is whether the pre-emptive discourse of these legislations is the actual answer for these threats. It should be asked whether these legislations have actually aided the regime in countering this threat which seems to endure. This is despite all the legislation that has been passed which Egyptian civil society and non-violent political actors are paying the direct cost of.

The most famous of these pre-emptive legislations is the “protest law” which was issued during the administration of Adly Mansour in late 2013. In an attempt to limit street activity and curb mobilising capabilities of the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposing political streams, the protest law incriminated all forms of collective action unless a prior authorisation was issued by the state. Ironically, I have not heard of any demonstration that was sanctioned by the state since this law was passed.

Another example is the law of “terrorist entities” which was passed in early 2015. This law gives the state the power and authority to label any entity a “terrorist organisation” and to take all measures necessary to handle them. But the law offers extremely elusive and unclear definitions of “terrorist entities” and of the conditions that should be present in order for an entity to be labelled “terrorist”.

Other examples include the presidential decree to expand punishment for evidence of foreign funding to NGOs, which was passed in September 2014. There is also the amendment to the Azhar law passed in October 2014 enabling the Al-Azhar administration to dismiss any student who insults the institution without defining what exactly the act of insulting entails.

I am not trying to downplay the terrorist threats Egypt is facing or the national security concerns that the current regime has. And if legislation can be used as one of the tools that will help counter those threats then so be it. But a considerable number of laws passed lately had a negative effect on the amount of freedom available in the Egyptian public sphere, and has directly contributed to an expansion of authorities available to different security institutions. This has brought back an apparatus of repression, which requires a change of discourse rather than mere resurrection and empowerment.

The writer is a researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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