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New protest bill undermines Egyptians' right to meet, strike, and demonstrate

Egyptian soldiers stand guard during a protest by members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo on 4 October 2013
Egyptian soldiers stand guard during a protest by members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo on 4 October 2013

REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

The undersigned organizations express their deep dismay at the proposed law on the regulation of the right to public meetings, processions, and peaceful demonstrations in public spaces, known in the media as the protest law.

The bill gives new political life to the protest law that the Muslim Brotherhood government failed to pass in April 2013 due to broad criticism from international bodies like the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, international rights organizations, and most of the undersigned Egyptian advocacy organizations.

Now, the current Ministry of Justice has put forth an even more repressive bill that not only puts draconian restrictions on the right to demonstrate, but imposes other curbs on the right to public meetings, strikes, sit-ins, and processions, thus utterly stifling Egyptians' freedom to engage in all forms of peaceful assembly—one of the most important rights won by Egyptians and sacrificed for with the blood of thousands under the rule of Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Unfortunately, the Prime Minister and most of the Cabinet approved the draft law on October 9, referring it to the interim President for his approval. The undersigned organizations urge the president not to approve the bill, while noting their appreciation for the stance of some ministers who voted against the proposed law and chose to respect the right to freedom of assembly as a basic human right.

We are also disappointed that the prime minister and other cabinet members who came to power as a result of Egyptians' exercising their right to peaceful assembly now view that right as an evil to be suppressed using all repressive and legal means. Consequently, it seems that the cabinet has approved a law whose basic philosophy is drawn from laws passed during the British occupation of Egypt and under the Muslim Brotherhood.

The bill imposes numerous restrictions on citizens' freedom to hold public meetings, even permitting security forces to attend such meetings, ostensibly to secure them. The law requires organizations to notify the Ministry of Interior seven days in advance of the planned gathering, even if it is held in a private space. Security forces are also permitted to attend seminars organized by political parties, research centers, and civic associations.

Indeed, the bill gives them the right to disperse these seminars on numerous grounds, including if they exceed the duration stipulated in the notification, and allows them to resort to using methods up to rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the gatherings. In consequence, the bill is clearly seen to restrict all political, cultural, intellectual, and artistic seminars and meetings organized by political parties, civic associations, and other bodies, and thus gravely undermining the right to free expression.

This is particularly serious considering the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. Yet, unlike law 14/1923, passed under the British occupation, this law does not exempt electoral meetings and rallies from its provisions. The law additionally criminalizes the right to strike, punishable by up to five years' imprisonment in addition to a monetary fine.

The proposed law imposes strict rules on organizers of meetings or demonstrations, while placing only vague curbs on security personnel's use of excessive force, disproportionate to the actions that might be committed by demonstrators.

It permits security forces to use rubber bullets without restriction, although this ammunition can be lethal, even if demonstrators commit simple infractions or if a demonstrator chants a phrase that might be considered libelous. If one person taking part in a demonstration or public meeting commits a crime, it does not justify dispersion, the use of lethal force, or collective punishment for other participants.

The bill crafts a new definition for self-defense that allows the use of lethal force by security forces in defense of “properties.” While attacks on public property are crimes, permitting killing in defense of property is a crime that should not be justified even by law.

It also contradicts with international standards on the use of force by law-enforcement officials, which limit the use of firearms and lethal force to cases of an imminent threat to life or grave injury, or to protect the lives of others.

While the bill stipulates that the organizers of demonstrations notify authorities of their planned gatherings – as opposed to follow a system of authorization, it makes such a stipulation meaningless by granting the Ministry of Interior the right to object to any planned demonstration on what the bill calls “serious” grounds.

These grounds are based on overly broad and vague legal formulations, such as considerations of “public order” or “public security.” The bill casts the burden of contesting the rejection before the courts on demonstrations' organizers, which imposes further obstacles and complicates procedures for those wishing to organize a seminar—even a small one—a demonstration, or even an election rally. In fact, it turns a simple notification system into a permit regime. The bill also requires notice to be given seven days prior to any event, a substantial period that will limit Egyptians' engagement and interaction with current events.

The draft law carries severe liberty-depriving penalties and monetary fines for those who violate it. For example, it prescribes a term of up to five years' imprisonment or a fine of up to LE 100,000 (USD$ 14,510) or both, if the assemblers or demonstrators stage a sit-in on the meeting or demonstration site, or if they breach the public order or obstruct traffic.

This means that a group of people who choose to demonstrate seeking higher wages or protesting their arbitrary dismissal may find themselves liable to a LE100,000 fine each not to mention time in prison. Moreover, the acts criminalized by the bill are vaguely drafted. The “public order” is not precisely defined, yet breaching it entails a five-year prison sentence.

As for traffic, it is difficult to imagine a demonstration, however small, that does not obstruct traffic, and since the bill requires prior notice, the Ministry of Interior is expected to change and announce new traffic routes to avoid these obstructions.

The bill also carries a sentence of up to three years incarceration and a fine of up to LE100,000 for anyone who wears a mask or intentionally covers his/her face during a meeting or demonstration. This article thus considers simply donning a mask a crime worthy of severe punishment.

In addition, the law restricts meetings and demonstrations' locations, specifying a no-go zone around some facilities of 100-300 meters. In practice, and considering the Egyptian urban landscape made up of adjoining buildings, this means that meetings and demonstrations will be organized far from the sight and sound of the entities that the demonstration or protest targets. Moreover, the bill gives governors the right to declare new areas as no-go zones and thus ban demonstrations in their vicinity.

The drafters of the bill should have instead established safeguards guaranteeing the right to peaceful assembly and placed more restrictions on security authorities in order to facilitate the practicing of this right. Furthermore, the drafters ought to have respected Egypt's international obligations and relevant international standards.

The undersigned organizations believe that the problem with demonstrations and peaceful assembly in Egypt does not lie in the lack of a regulatory legislative framework, but rather in the way that the security forces engage with these demonstrations and the lack of democratic accountability measures as well as justice for crimes committed against demonstrators for nearly three years now. Since January 25, 2011, most assemblies and demonstrations by Egyptians have been met with lethal force by security forces.

This was true in the Maspero Massacre in October 2011, and again on Mohammed Mahmoud Street in November 2011, in front of the Cabinet building in December 2011, in front of the Ittihadiya Presidential Palace in December 2012, in Port Said and Suez in January 2013, the dispersal of the sit-ins at Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nahda Squares in August 2013, and finally during demonstrations on October 6, 2013.

In all these events, some 3,000 citizens were killed and injured without any subsequent diligent investigations or judicial convictions for most of the perpetrators and those responsible for these crimes, despite the time elapsed on many of them.

The demonstrations and strikes ongoing in Egyptian squares for several years have political, social, and economic roots. They thus require political, social, and economic solutions, not security approaches or more repressive legislation. Any law regulating peaceful demonstration must consider that the performance and practice of security forces in Egypt—both before and after the revolution—is sufficient to turn the most well-formulated law in the world into a fertile field for human rights abuses and crimes when put into practice.

We believe that the interim government would do better to devote its time in reforming the security apparatus and amending the police law in accordance with international standards instead of investing efforts in drafting new repressive laws that only exacerbate political, economic, and social crises, punish intentions, and provide legal cover for assaults on the rights, liberties, and lives of citizens.

In a few days, the state of emergency will end, but this bill and several others, which the government has declared it intends to pass, enshrine an exceptional state of emergency in ordinary law, cementing the philosophy of emergency in Egyptian legislation. This draft law and others are thus more dangerous than the temporary state of emergency because they seek to normalize it and make it permanent.

Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
Arabic Network for Human Rights Information
Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression

Other Signatories

Egyptian Coalition for the Rights of the Child
The Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement
Human Rights Association for the Assistance of Prisoners
Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights
Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights
Andalus Center for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies
Habi Center for Environmental Rights
Hisham Mubarak Law Center
Appropriate Communications Techniques for Development (ACT)
Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination
Arab Organization for Penal Reform
Egyptian Foundation for the Advancement of Childhood Conditions
Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance
Nazra for Feminist Studies
New Woman Foundation

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