CAIRO, Egypt — By nightfall on Tuesday, 28 protesters were locked inside the capital's parliament building.
Almost four months after mass demonstrations unseated Egypt’s second president in three years, these detainees were the first to fall afoul of a controversial law criminalizing demonstrations that take place without government permission.
Known colloquially as the "anti-protest law," the brand-new legislation has attracted stinging criticism from rights groups and international arbiters. It went into effect on Tuesday.
The law requires citizens to give the Interior Ministry three days’ notice before holding public meetings and electoral gatherings. Protesters deemed to have violated this provision face up to seven years in prison and fines up to $1,500.
Tuesday’s demonstration in downtown Cairo had first been called in response to an article in Egypt’s new draft constitution that sanctions using military trials for civilians. According to the new law, the protest was unauthorized. It took place outside the upper house of parliament, known as the Shura Council, where constitutional officials were discussing the draft constitution.
Standing in front of a line of armored personnel carriers, about 150 protesters chanted against the use of military tribunals and violence to silence peaceful protest. Within minutes, security forces announced the demonstration would be dispersed.
Shortly afterward, the forces turned water cannons and tear gas on the crowd. Black-clad riot police arrested dozens, at least 28 of whom were then detained within the Shura Council building. Others were held in riot police vans. Rights workers estimated that as many as 60 protesters were detained.
Abdel Ghany Sayed, an assistant to Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Behaa Eddin, was also arrested and held at the council building. Bahaa Eddin has reportedly been a lone voice in the cabinet arguing against the new law.
The Interior Ministry says they dispersed the protest because the crowd had been throwing stones. A spokesman denied using force against protesters, without specifically commenting on the security forces' methods.
Tweeting in Arabic from inside the Shura Council, detained activist Nazly Hussein reported beatings and sexual harassment at the hands of the police, a common allegation that pre-dates Egypt’s revolutionary upheaval.
Since the country’s 2011 uprising, successive governments have failed to win sustained control of the streets. Between January and June of this year, there were an average of 185 protests or strikes per month, according to a survey by Cairo-based NGO the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights.
Law or no law, what has happened today is no different to what we've seen for years. Why? Cos no one fights hard enough for security reform.
— Hafsa Halawa (@HafsaHalawa) November 26, 2013
— Mohamed El Dahshan (@eldahshan) November 26, 2013
The months since President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in a July 3 military-led takeover have seen near-daily protests by his supporters. In August, they ended in tragedy, after security services dispersing a pro-Morsi sit-in in east Cairo killed more than 700 people in the space of 10 hours.
Although previous governments have attempted to pass legislation limiting the ability of citizens to protest without forewarning, Egypt’s new interim government is the first to succeed.
Now, the authorities' rhetoric is uncompromising. Speaking to the privately-owned CBC television channel, Major General Abdel-Fattah Othman described unauthorized protests as “a challenge to the state and its prestige.
“The protesters want to embarrass the state. But the state is capable,” he warned.
Police began crack down very quickly on protest looking to enforce new draconian law. Turbulent days surely lie ahead.
— Sharif Kouddous (@sharifkouddous) November 26, 2013
In spite of heavy criticism, observers have also pointed to positive changes in the new law — when compared to drafts considered under the current military-led government and President Morsi's administration. They include a provision stating that the use of police force must be “proportionate to the danger posed against life, money, or property.”
But critics say that this provision is unlikely to be implemented correctly.
“This law cannot be adequately implemented without serious reform of the ministry of the interior,” says Karim Ennarah, a justice researcher at the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “The police don’t understand what proportionality means, it isn’t integrated in their training.”
A lack of reform in Egypt’s notorious interior ministry has been central to the country's failure to regain stability since the 2011 uprising. Small-scale protests against the authorities have repeatedly been met with force, catalyzing days of drawn-out street clashes. As headlines have been dominated by tales of violence, Egypt’s economy has continued to nosedive, precipitating further dissatisfaction.
“Every government since the revolution has attempted to push through a protest law and regardless of the small technical differences between them, they all share the same philosophy," said Ennarah, who has been consulted during the drafting of a number of provisional protest laws. "They are all attempts by the state to control what they have lost in terms of public space."
An activist told me earlier he tried to apply for a protest permit yday. Police kept him 4 hours, then claimed he'd written wrong ID number.
— Patrick Kingsley (@PatrickKingsley) November 26, 2013
Ennarah went on: “In a country like the UK, for instance, there are other political mechanisms that can absorb the population’s political energy. But since [Egypt’s] revolution, there has been a reason why street protests have been so dominant. Political structures have fallen apart and all attempts to breathe some life into them has been failing. With a law like this, the government has taken the decision to place the police in constant conflict with the people.”
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay urged the Egyptian government to amend the law to correct myriad problems, including unclear wording, excessive sanctions, and inappropriate escalating measures that security forces can use in dealing with protesters.
“This is a country whose people have proclaimed loudly, clearly, courageously and repeatedly their desire to be able to demonstrate peacefully in accordance with their international human rights,” she said Tuesday.
“Egyptian civil society organisations and human rights defenders raised many concerns, but unfortunately these have not been taken into account.”
As the 28 sat detained on Tuesday night, social media was abuzz with criticism of the new law's implementation.
“A lot of questions have just been answered about how police will implement the protest law,” tweeted TIME journalist Jared Malsin.