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Egypt: Judging the protest law

Ziad Bahaa-Eldin , Monday 20 Jun 2016

It finally looks like the state intends to amend the protest law number 107 of 2013. The human rights committee in parliament has already begun soliciting proposed changes from the government, MPs, and the National Council on Human Rights. This is good and should be welcomed.

A gross error right from the beginning, the law restricted the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of peaceful protest, split the ranks of the June 30 coalition, and sent youth who clung to the right of expression to prison.

My objection to the law is not new. In fact, its issuance in late November 2013 ultimately prompted me to resign from the government in January 2014, after all attempts to amend it failed. So I’m pleased the law and the havoc it wreaked on our political trajectory are being reconsidered, even at this late date. 

But if the amendment is to serve its purpose, the changes must go to the core of the law, not merely tinker with the surface. This should also be accompanied by a comprehensive review of other laws issued over the past two years that contravene the constitution and which have closed up the political space. 

There are four major flaws in the protest law. First, in practice it makes peaceful demonstrations conditional on the prior approval of the Interior Ministry, in violation of Article 73 of the constitution, which requires only that the competent authorities be notified. Second, the law considers any meeting of more than ten persons a demonstration punishable by law, again an unconstitutional provision that curtails the right of assembly, association, and freedom of expression.

Third, the law imposes insurmountable administrative restrictions on peaceful demonstrations such as the requirement that every governor designates public places in which demonstrations can be held without prior notice, whereas as far as I’m aware, only one decree has been issued, designating Fustat in Cairo as a space for demonstrations by citizens from all over the country. And fourth, the law sets a penalty of up to five years imprisonment and a fine of LE100,000 for unsanctioned demonstrations, even if the assembly results in no harm to persons or property, and this violates the constitutional precept that sentences must be commensurate to the crime and flies in the face of logic, justice, and well-established principles of criminal law.

Any revision that does not rectify these four concerns is not serious and is not meant to turn the page on this grim law. 

Moreover, the adoption of the protest law was the starkest, but not the sole, sign of the country’s divergence from the democratic path. Other legislation was issued in the past two years curbing other aspects of political and civic freedoms. Amending the protest law is thus not enough. At least four other laws should be revised as well.

The first is Law 128/2014, “the law of other things,” which makes a person who receives funding or other unspecified “things” from abroad or home subject to life imprisonment, or death in the case of public servants. Second, the vague definitions of crimes in Law 94/2015 on terrorism must be reviewed, as they do not fulfill the criteria of clarity and precision required by criminal law. 

Third, Law 136/2014 expands the grounds on which civilians can be referred to military tribunals, in violation of Article 204 of the constitution, which narrowly defines the jurisdiction of military courts. And various articles in the Penal Code must be repealed that permit the imprisonment of people with dissident opinions under various sweeping charges, such as blasphemy, threatening the public peace, and disseminating false information.

Finally, repairing the grave damage caused by the protest and other restrictive laws requires reviewing the status of those imprisoned for peacefully demonstrating in past years but convicted of other, related crimes, which means that amending the protest law alone will do them little good. And legal guarantees for pretrial detention must also be respected, to prevent precautionary measures from becoming forms of punishment. 

Does any of this mean being soft on crime, overlooking violence and terrorism, or unleashing chaos? On the contrary, ordinary criminal laws are adequate to maintain security without infringing rights and liberties or disregarding the principles of justice. Laws and practices that violate the constitution will not bring stability. They have only denied society the benefit of youth participation and valuable diverse opinions. 

Amendments to the protest law have been too long in coming and they shouldn’t be ignored again, but I hope they won't be cosmetic changes designed to improve Egypt’s image at home or abroad.

I hope they reflect the state’s recognition that shutting down the public sphere, curtailing liberties, and silencing opposition voices won’t bring security and stability and signal the government’s intention to turn a fresh page that will unleash society’s energies, restore young people’s optimism and faith, and defuse the resentment and division that stymie every attempt toward progress and development.

*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, 13 June.


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