Laws become obsolete in various ways. Sometimes as a new law repeals an older one or a court overturns a statute as unconstitutional. Other times, society nullifies it in practice by forgetting, tacitly agreeing to ignore it, or when it rises up and rejects it en masse. But on occasion, a law becomes ineffective when its application yields such contradictory and absurd consequences that it comes to be seen it as incompatible with justice.
Law 107/2013 banning peaceful protests is of the latter type. Having gradually lost its credibility over the past year, the demonstrations by Finance Ministry employees and junior policemen two weeks ago finally put it out of its misery, as the state stood mutely before thousands of demonstrators, in stark contrast from a few months ago when it strictly enforced the law against young men and women demanding freedom of expression and the right of peaceful protest.
The state’s stance appeared stranger still when officials attempted to justify this double standard by explaining that state employees were engaged in “protest stands,” which are not sanctioned by the law.
Though the inaction that met these demonstrations highlighted the contradiction in state policy, the law didn’t fall all at once, but was gradually eroded by numerous developments.
Since it was issued on November 24, 2013, the protest law has rested on three false assumptions.
First, that it was necessary in order to stop violent demonstrations and acts of subversion. In fact, the law prohibited all demonstrations, including peaceful ones, and the state already has an arsenal of criminal laws at its disposal to counter violence and destruction.
Second, that it was needed to restore economic order, bring back foreign investment, and lead the country out of its economic crisis. In reality, the reason for the continued economic hardship is a lack of clarity in the state’s economic direction and confused tax and monetary policies.
Third, it was argued that all democracies regulate the right to demonstrate. But while this argument was true in principle, it ignored the fact that such regulation is accompanied by certain basic guarantees, most significantly the capacity to timely challenges of state decrees, protections for civil society and freedom of expression, and information transparency.
Various events followed: violence and terrorism escalated despite an end to peaceful demonstrations by the youth and their disengagement from public affairs and politics; various young people were convicted and imprisoned for demanding their right to peacefully demonstrate; the late Shaimaa Sabbagh was killed early this year when taking part in a symbolic march to honor the martyrs of the revolution; the state encouraged citizens to take to the streets - in violation of the law - for various sanctioned occasions and celebrations; and last but not least, thousands of state employees and policemen protested unmolested, exposing the selective enforcement of the law.
All of this demonstrated that from the beginning the intent of the protest law was to stifle freedom of expression and peaceful protest, at a time when the country—without an elected parliament or local council or strong parties—needed to open channels for popular expression, not deter social participation or encourage recourse to more violent alternatives. Moreover, all that this law managed to achieve was to split the national consensus united around the rejection of religious rule, as certain state bodies clung to the law to silence the youth of the January and June revolutions and settle accounts with them.
I know that some still believe, in good faith, that conditions in the country cannot bear ongoing youth demonstrations, even if peaceful, and that postponing all forms of protest for a limited time will give the government a chance to act and build. But even from this practical perspective, the law has neither contributed to the fight against terrorism, not fostered economic development, nor unleashed productive energies. Instead it squander young people’s enthusiasm and desire to participate and change things, and usher in a return to a culture that speaks with one voice and declares dissenters traitors.
The latest contradictions in the application of the law may change nothing. The state unfortunately views its stature as bound up with its commitment to the laws it has issued, even if they lose credibility, seeing any retreat as a sign of weakness and lack of resolve. But the young men and women languishing in prisons for the crime of peacefully demonstrating in defense of the right of peaceful protest know today that they’ve made major strides toward liberating society from an unjust law, even if tacitly.
Will the state listen to the voice of reason and logic, give them the freedom they deserve, and reconsider a law that should have never been issued? Or will it continue to ignore its de facto nullification and collapse ?
Ziad Bahaa-Eldin 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.
This article was published in Arabic in El-Shorouq newspaper on Tuesday, 1 September.