Conflict & Justice

Backlash to Egypt's new protest law hits Cairo's streets


Egyptian policemen use a water cannon to disperse protesters during a demonstration organized by the group "No Military Trials for Civilians" in front of the Shura council in downtown Cairo on November 26, 2013 against the new law passed the previous day regulating demonstrations in the first unauthorized protest staged in the capital since the adoption of the law.



Protesters burst onto Egyptian streets on Tuesday in defiance of a new, restrictive peaceful assembly bill introduced by interim president Adly Mansour on Sunday — promptly implemented Monday — that human rights groups are saying “gives security forces free reign.”

Egyptian police responded to the protests by launching teargas canisters and water cannons into crowds of hundreds at the Press Syndicate and parliament in Cairo.

The demonstrators had gathered to commemorate the death of an activist in the midst of clashes with police two years ago, Reuters reported, but did so without the now mandatory police approval.

The state news agency has so far reported that 20 of the protesters, who were also chanting "down, down with military rule," were arrested, while ousted president Mohamed Morsi supporters continued to hold their own protests throughout the country.

The new law orders that protests at places of worship are verboten, and permits the Interior Ministry the right to disallow “any public meeting of more than 10 people.”

As the United States and rights groups condemn the action as one that “does not meet international standards and hampers the country's move toward democracy,” Egyptian authorities are asserting that the legislation is intended to “restore order to the streets,” and to stop the disruption of traffic.

On Tuesday, GlobalPost spoke with Deena Adel Eid, an Egyptian reporter now based in New York City, to get some context on what the new law means for those on Egypt’s streets. Here is what she had to say:

GLOBALPOST: Can you tell me a bit about this new peaceful assembly bill? What does it mean for the legality of public assembly, exactly, and what are the implications in terms of Egypt's current upheaval and the potential outcome of continued unrest moving forward under these new stipulations?

DEENA ADEL: The new protest law, officially issued on Sunday by interim president Adly Mansour, requires protest organizers to notify the police of demonstrations or marches three business days in advance, and it grants security officials the right to effectively prohibit any protests or public gatherings. The law has been rejected by several human rights organizations that say it seeks to “criminalize all forms of peaceful assembly.”

On the other hand, the law has also found support among citizens who have been frustrated with the multitude of protesters taking to the streets on an almost-daily basis, obstructing traffic and disrupting their lives. A spokesman for Egypt's Catholic bishops, Fr. Rafiq Greiche, said the new law “reflects legislation already in place in Western countries, where organizers are required to notify police about the date and place of the protest." For example, to march in a street in New York City, you must obtain a permit from the Police Department.

However, the new bill goes beyond regulating protests, by providing a legal framework that permits police violence. It explicitly gives security forces the right to use excessive and lethal force against demonstrators. If one person breaks the law, all protesters can be violently dispersed by teargas, water cannons, rubber bullets and even actual bullets.

GP: How are the conditions set forth by this law different from the legislation on assembly under Hosni Mubarak, prior to the January 25, 2011 ouster? How might a law like this have altered the outcome?

DA: Prior to January 25, 2011, public assembly laws effectively allowed the police under former President Hosni Mubarak to ban public protests. The right to protest is considered one of the few concrete victories of the 2011 uprising — one that was paid for by protesters’ blood and sweat.

GP: The new law stipulates that “public meeting, procession or protest” can take place only after the proper notification has been submitted to the police station responsible for the zone of meeting place. The proper notification, as directed by the law, includes:

“1. The place of the public meeting or the place and route of the procession or protest.
2. The start and end time of the public meeting, procession or protest.
3. The subject of the public meeting, procession, or protest, its purpose, the demands requested by the participants in any of them, and the mottos used.
4. The names of individuals, and their titles, or entities organizing the public meeting or procession or protest, their residences and contact information.”

To what extent do you think this information will be used to preemptively shut down gatherings before they even have a chance to occur?

DA: This is a legitimate concern shared by several human rights activists. The Interior ministry is given full discretion to bar demonstrations on vague and overbroad grounds including “threats to security and peace”, “security or public order”, and “influencing the course of justice.” Protesters will have to go to court if they wish to appeal that decision, which can be quite a lengthy process as judges are under no obligation to respond before the scheduled protest.

GP: As you mentioned, police forces can very quickly go from repeated verbal warnings, to the uses of water canons, teargas and rubber bullets, and even further to the use of firearms with non-rubber bullets. How is this different, if at all, from the previous protocol in response to "inappropriate gatherings"?

DA: The difference seems to be that the new protest law has legalized police violence. It provided security officials with a legal framework that allows them to use force as they see fit. The law goes into detail about how security forces have the right to use water canons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and even firearms, but what about handcuffs? If a protester does break the law and resort to violence, he should be arrested, not shot at. Instead, under the new law, if one protester breaks the law, the police have the right to violently disperse all protesters.

GP: Do you think the people of Egypt will adhere to the limits imposed by the new law?

DA: It’s difficult to make any predictions, but it’s hard to imagine supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi, who are the prime targets of the protest law, adhering to the new law. Other activist groups are also already planning demonstrations against the new law. Attempts by the previous government to pass a similarly restrictive protest law had failed after an outcry by human rights organizations and activists.