BY: Ragab Saad
On Wednesday, following increased protests throughout Egypt, the Ministry of Justice announced a draft law that seeks to restrict the right to demonstrate in public places. Since the revolution, Egyptian authorities have spoken of the guaranteed right to peaceful demonstration. In reality, however, all those who have come to occupy positions of power within the government have tried to restrict this right.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had previously tried to make it illegal to demonstrate peacefully, by passing a law that would have criminalized partisan sit-ins and strikes. In addition, shortly after winning a majority in the House of Representatives in early 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) proved itself unsympathetic to the political protests occurring throughout Egypt by putting forward a bill that would limit the right to peaceful assembly. The dissolution of parliament last year prevented the bill’s passage.
President Morsi’s Minister of Justice has since completed a draft law that restricts the right to demonstrate by imposing several conditions. These include prohibiting any disturbance “of security or public order, prohibiting the hindrance to citizens’ interests, or the blocking of roads and other means of transport, obstructing traffic, or attacking personal property, or hindering the freedom to work.” Because these conditions are characteristically broad and non-specific they effectively render any demonstration illegal. How, for example, can it be determined that a demonstration has disturbed the “public order”? Not to mention that any large rally will inevitably lead to an obstruction of traffic and the blocking of roads for a certain period of time. Every large demonstration in Tahrir Square has obstructed the flow of traffic and public transportation to the square. The law would punish any demonstrator who blocks a road or sets up a barricade to disrupt the flow of traffic – a common occurrence during sit-ins – with a prison sentence of no less than three months, as well as a fine of between twenty and fifty thousand Egyptian Pounds ($3,000-$7,500).
Likewise, the prohibition of hindering the freedom to work is tantamount to the criminalization of the right to strike. The law goes as far as to criminalize the mere threat of any of the above activities. In other words, any call to demonstrate on a public road in any city would be forbidden, given that such a demonstration would obstruct the flow of traffic, while any call to strike would be forbidden because it would be considered a hindrance to the freedom to work.
In addition, the law would outlaw carrying banners or using slogans that demonstrate disdain or contempt for the Abrahamic religions, or that might provoke sectarian strife. It is worth noting that all of these prohibitions were routinely used by the government under Mubarak as a means to repress freedom of expression. This same article would also make it illegal to insult to a governmental body and its constituent organizations, which would mean the prohibition of any demonstration accusing a public institution of failure or corruption, or which demands its reform, a change in its leadership, or that it be held to account for any crimes or violations. Anyone who does so would face a jail sentence and a fine of between twenty and fifty thousand Egyptian Pounds.
The draft law also stipulates that advance notification is for demonstrations. Protesters must submit a notification at least five days in advance, ignoring the spontaneous nature these protests often have.
The draft bill would also give the Ministry of the Interior the authority to dictate the route of a demonstration and to change it, essentially making the Ministry a partner in its organization. It also gives the Minister of the Interior or the relevant chief of security the authority to oppose the demonstration by submitting a request to the court that it be cancelled, postponed, or relocated, opening the door to restrictions on the right to demonstrate via the courts, at the request of the Minister of the Interior.
Anyone who demonstrates without giving prior notice, or who leaves the designated demonstration area, or who fails to demonstrate within the preapproved time, faces a fine of between twenty to fifty thousand Egyptian Pounds according to the draft law. The same penalty will be given to any demonstrator who draws graffiti on a wall.
The draft law attempts to limit the effect of demonstrations that target governmental headquarters and public institutions by giving the government the right to prohibit any demonstration from approaching within 500 meters of its grounds, including the presidential palaces, parliament buildings, ministries, courts, and military zones. The government would be given the authority to expand these prohibited areas in order to protect them. The draft bill would also ban podiums and sit ins in these areas. It would even give the police the authority to break up these sit-ins should a single tent be set up.
When it comes to dispersing protests, the draft law stipulates that all attempts should begin with a verbal warning, followed in turn by the use of tear gas, fire hoses, plastic truncheons, and shots in the air. But the law does not stop there. It grants police the use of more powerful weapons after obtaining court approval. While the draft law specifically lists fines and jail sentences for opposing its arbitrary conditions, it makes no mention of punishments for policemen whose misuse of force might result in the injury and death of demonstrators.
Ultimately, it does not appear that the passage of this draft law, announced by the Ministry of Justice will in fact achieve its desired goal, namely limiting demonstrations, nor will it reduce the size or influence of the demonstrations, as was demonstrated by outright defiance in the face of state a curfew imposed in three the Suez Canal cities. If this law is ratified, the real result will be to grant legitimacy to the excessive use of force by security forces in dispersing demonstrations.
Ragab Saad is a researcher and Managing Editor of “Rowaq Arabi” Journal at Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS).