Without commenting on judicial rulings, the continued application of the protest law indicates that the state is continuing down the same path that is taking us toward more tension on the street and further divisions in society, and pushing young people to opt for more strident means to express their despair at ever having a voice.
Every time a political release seems to loom on the horizon or reasonable voices urge the state to reassess its stance on civil liberties, we end up back where we started or even further behind. Louder, more influential voices manage to persuade decision makers, and a sizeable chunk of the public, that abandoning the protest law and releasing people imprisoned for expressing their opinion will unleash chaos and violence and obstruct economic development and the war against terrorism.
In fact, this mentality, which has dominated state thinking over the past two years, is utterly wrongheaded. Curtailing the right of peaceful protest does not protect society from violence and does not bring security and stability.
A law criminalizing demonstrations won’t deter anyone set on taking up arms against the nation, and anyway the authorities have other penal statutes at their disposal without restricting this constitutional right to protest peacefully. Prohibiting peaceful protest has had no impact on the battle against terrorism. It has only divided our ranks and excluded well-meaning youth from politics, at a time when the country needs to come together, mobilize energies, and regain the confidence of younger generations in the value of participation.
On the other hand, the assertion that the momentous economic, social, and security challenges facing the country don’t permit us the luxury of disagreeing or questioning the government’s performance is mistaken.
On the contrary, the very thing that will bring us together to meet these challenges is a diversity of opinion, government accountability, and participation in decision-making.
Participation makes the public a partner, encouraging citizens to be vigilant of state agencies and giving them a stake in outcomes.
The frequent admonition "to be quiet and let the government work effectively" removes oversight and accountability, especially with a weak, fragmented parliament, a besieged civil society, and a media fighting for its independence.
Where else can popular oversight come from, necessary to correct course, expose corruption, and review misguided policies and decisions?
Finally there is the claim that economic development and investment require laws that restrict freedoms. We need only consider the causes of the economic crisis to see that curbing the right to protest has not helped to resolve it, but only made it worse.
Political unrest does not help attract investments nor tourists. It only limits society’s capacity to innovate and create, increases the cost of production, and erodes investors’ confidence in national stability, social peace, and the fairness of the country’s legal system.
A law loses legitimacy when its application leads to outcomes that defy logic, common sense, and justice. The protest law lost all legitimacy a long time ago, when it became clear that its aim was not to protect society from violence and thuggery, but to silence youth.
Every time another young man or woman is imprisoned, this law loses more legitimacy in the face of the courage of those convicted under its provisions.
What are we to think when we see youth sentenced to years in prison for carrying their country’s flag and peacefully protesting an obscure agreement concluded by the state without preamble or consultation?
The protest law hasn’t been merely sullied—it has been thoroughly discredited and become a symbol for injustice and irrationality.
The ongoing disagreement in society is no longer about the protest law per se; it won’t be resolved by a some tweaks in its provisions or pardons for a few prisoners. It is a reflection of the wide gap between two conflicting visions of development and reform.
One camp believes state institutions can’t be rebuilt and development achieved unless all opposition voices fall silent and let the government work in peace. The other camp holds that an energetic society, diversity of opinion, and youth participation, no matter how scathing their criticism, are necessary to put the country on track, foster its creative energies, and restore its unity.Since the first approach hasn’t worked, isn’t it time to reconsider?
It is time to understand that a country like Egypt, with its diversity and richness, cannot progress in a climate that suppresses civil liberties and does not allow youth a say in determining their future.
*The writer 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 Monday, 16 May.