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Egypt's new protest bill fails to protect protesters

Plain-clothes security personnel beat an anti-government protester at Cairo's Tahrir Square on 3 March 2013
Plain-clothes security personnel beat an anti-government protester at Cairo's Tahrir Square on 3 March 2013

REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

UPDATE: EOHR calls upon the Minister of Interior to end the use of force against civil protesters (EOHR, 4 March 2013)

(CIHRS/IFEX) - On 3 March 2013, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) participated in a meeting held by the Shura Council to discuss a bill presented by the Cabinet to regulate protests. During the meeting, a representative of CIHRS expressed his opposition to the proposed bill, explaining that it contradicts international standards on the right to freedom of assembly and even provides legal cover for the use of violence against peaceful assemblies by security forces. Indeed, the bill fails to restrict the use of force in order to circumvent breaches which frequently exacerbate the political situation during protests and lead to further human rights violations.

CIHRS asserted that the human rights violations witnessed in Mansoura in recent days, as well as the crimes committed in front of the Ittihadiyya Presidential Palace, bear witness to the fact that Egypt is not in need of a law to regulate protests, but rather the implementation of legal means of accountability for crimes committed by members of the security forces or of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party the Freedom and Justice Party against peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins. Failing to take the performance and practices of the security forces into account when passing legislation to deal with demonstrations would surely turn even the best law on protests into grounds for further violations.

Mohamed Zaree, Manager of the Egypt / Roadmap Program at CIHRS, commented on the bill, stating, “The draft law to protect the right to demonstrate in public places, as presented to the Shura Council, evidences a lack of political will on the part of the government of the Freedom and Justice Party to respect the right to demonstrate. Instead, it would seem that this government will continue to deal with protests as a necessary evil which must be tolerated, rather than a positive political act aiming to bring about democratic and social change through legitimate means,” which is how the Muslim Brotherhood had viewed political demonstrations prior to the revolution. Zaree affirmed that the Brotherhood's post-revolution view is reflected in the bill, saying, “After the Brotherhood assumed power, they went to the extreme in imposing arbitrary restrictions on the exercise of the right to demonstrate, while neglecting to impose sufficient restrictions on the use of force by the Ministry of Interior to disperse protests. This is seen clearly in Articles 15 and 16 of the bill.” Despite the fact that the name of the bill refers to “the protection of the right to protest,” a review of the text itself reveals that the bill does not protect this right, but rather establishes the right of the security forces to use violence against protesters.

The bill employs broad, vague language such as references to “public order” and “general security.” It further establishes acts that could be considered to “hinder the interests of citizens” (Article 4) as grounds for dispersing a protest (Article 14). It is within the sole jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry to determine what acts or slogans fall under these provisions, thus leaving these terms wide open to interpretation at the whim of the Ministry to justify breaking up protests at any time.

CIHRS affirms that the right to assembly should be seen as a form of expression of opinion, and as such CIHRS notes that further restrictions placed on the freedom of expression and opinion in the penal code and other laws represent in practice restrictions also to protestors who exercise their right to express their opinions through demonstration.

CIHRS notes also that among the most important legal principles which are absent in this bill but which should be included in any Egyptian law regulating protests is that the use of force by the authorities should not be without limits. Rather, the law should establish that force must be used proportionally according to what is necessary to achieve a legitimate purpose and to the severity of the breach committed by protestors to which it seeks to respond. Any law should also provide a clear understanding of what is meant by the “use of force.” Force must be used only when strictly necessary and as a method of last resort, meaning that force and firearms are not to be used except in cases in which all other methods are deemed to be ineffective. The use of force must also be in compliance with local laws as well as international standards, particularly the Basic Principles for the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, adopted by the 8th United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders in Havana, Cuba, September 1990.

Finally, CIHRS draws attention to the need for Morsi's government to ensure that accountability for the crimes committed against peaceful protestors since the January 25th Revolution is made a priority, whether these crimes were committed by members of the security forces or by supporters of the previous or current regimes. The Shura Council must immediately begin the process of making the necessary legal amendments to limit the power of the security apparatus, including the use of lethal force against peaceful protestors. The current regime must fully understand the complex reasons behind the protests seen daily in the country and work towards remedying them, rather than merely resorting to the suppression of such demonstrations.

The proposed bill on demonstrations currently being discussed in the Shura Council is the same draft law that was prepared by the Ministry of Justice at the beginning of February and presented to the Cabinet in a meeting on 13 February 2013. The Cabinet supported the bill on 18 February, after inserting a number of limited amendments, and submitted it to the Shura Council on 19 February.

On 5 February 2013, the Ministry of Justice had called upon a number of Egyptian and international rights organizations to comment on the bill regulating the right to peaceful protest in public places. The organizations which were invited to comment on this draft were CIHRS, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was also invited to submit comments. For its part, CIHRS sent a commentary on the bill on 10 February to the Ministry of Justice, and the Ministry responded to a limited number of the amendments proposed therein. For example, the revised text clearly stipulates the annulment of Law 10 of 1914 on assemblies (Tagmhor) and Law 14 of 1923 on public assemblies and demonstrations in public streets. However, the response of the Ministry of Justice did not address a number of fundamental issues related to guaranteeing the respect of the right to demonstrate according to international standards. In fact, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement on 19 February, asserting that the observations which it had sent had not been taken into consideration by the Ministry of Justice. This is demonstrated clearly in the latest version of the bill, dated 16 February 2013.

The bill on “protecting the right to peaceful protest in public places” was discussed in a meeting held by the joint committee made up of members from the Committees for Arab and Foreign Affairs, National Security, and the Human Rights Committee. Representatives of rights organizations also attended the meeting, including ones from CIHRS, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and the United Group – Attorneys at Law, and Human Rights Advocates.

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