On Wednesday, February 13, the Egyptian Islamist-dominated cabinet approved a new draft law regulating public protests.
Egypt’s Justice Minister, Ahmed Mekki, said the proposed law was drawn up in order “to ensure the peaceful nature of demonstrations.”
The proposed regulations deal with several critical aspects of public protests. The demonstration approval process, the use of physical objects, the location and the topics which can be discussed, all will be severely restricted if the new proposal becomes law.
The proposed restrictions include a prohibition on raised platforms for speakers and the use of tents, both of which were famously used during the revolution two years ago and again this past year during the demonstrations against Egyptian President Morsi’s Constitution.
Under the new legislation, protesters will not be permitted to wear masks or other objects to cover their faces, and banners or chants “that include insults, defamation or contempt of ‘heavenly’ religions, or that stir sedition, violence or hatred or include an offence to state bodies and institutions” will be prohibited.
And there will now be only one site within each district at which protests can be held, and that site will be designated by the governor of each district. Blocking roads and squares will not be permitted anywhere, and permit applications will have to be submitted at least three days in advance of the protest. In addition, no protests will be permitted within 200 meters of any government buildings or places of worship.
The proposed law now goes to the Shura Council, which is the upper body of the Egyptian legislature. The Shura Council is the only body with the power to pass legislation during the current transition period.
The official reason for the proposed changes is to ensure the right of “peaceful assembly,” while preventing mass violence and mayhem, but human rights groups are critical.
In the two years since the start of the Egyptian revolution, there have been many demonstrations, quite a few have been violent and there has been a good deal of damage and delay caused by the demonstrations. More than 60 people died during violent protests between January 25 and February 4, alone. Prior to the revolution, there were no public protests, because they were not permitted.
But for researchers at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, a different calculation must be drawn. A CIHRS statement pointed out about the draft law:
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 Egyptian director of Human Rights Watch, Heba Morayef, also noted the backwards direction in which Egypt seems headed: “This law seems designed to actually increase restrictions, whereas the existing legal framework, which dates back to the early 20th century, was bad enough.”