If anyone has embraced the power of protest, it’s the Egyptian people. In the past two years, they’ve used mass demonstrations to oust a dictator and an unpopular president, and Tahrir Square—the locus of the Arab Spring uprising—has become a global synonym for populist dissent. Egypt’s ruling generals also know the power of street activism, which helped undermine their clumsy attempt to steer the country after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Now, back at the reins after a bloodless coup in July against former President Mohamed Morsi, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his cohorts are floating a law that would give the government sweeping authority to criminalize future protests.
The law, already passed by the cabinet on October 10, has yet to be officially ratified by the interim president, Adly Mansour. The measure would ban any protest not approved in advance by the police, and would allow the interior minister and senior officials to postpone or cancel protests at their discretion. It would also establish “protest-free zones” around state buildings, where pitched battles have been waged between Morsi’s supporters and detractors.
The government has painted the bill as an attempt to further crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood, which has bitterly protested against Morsi’s removal. But the proposed law has triggered a wave of anger across the political spectrum in Egypt. Many Egyptians, who risked their lives protesting in recent years, are not shy in voicing their rage.
“This law is worse than during Morsi’s regime,” said Mohamed Adel, one of the founding members of the April 6 Movement, which formed in 2008 to support striking factory workers and was a prominent voice during the country’s 2011 revolution.
“The regime that came [to power] by protest is making laws against protest.”
“It’s unacceptable,” he told The Daily Beast. “The regime that came [to power] by protest is making laws against protest. They are trying to stop the Ultras [militant soccer fans who occasionally get involved in political protests], The April 6 Movement, and the Muslim Brotherhood. They are afraid.”
Even Tamarod, the group behind the millions-strong demonstrations that fueled opposition to Morsi, attacked the law as “unjust”, saying that laws should not curb peaceful protest.
In response to the proposed law, renowned Egyptian blogger Zeinobia, who pens the blog Egyptian Chronicles, wrote a post in which she slammed the government for restricting the very forces that brought them into power.
“I remember Egypt's new idol Abdel Fatah [al-]Sisi begging the people to go to the streets,” she wrote, referring al-Sisi’s plea to Egyptians to agitate publicly and grant him the mandate to quell “terrorism”.
Twitter blew up with an Arabic hashtag which translates to “I reject the protest law” as the new draft law was circulated online in Arabic and English.
While the entire law has sparked controversy, several articles have been singled out as being especially authoritarian.
Article 5 states that protesters cannot cover their faces in any way. This does not explain if women wearing niqabs will be allowed to participate in protests. Article 6 stipulates that demonstrators must notify the police 24 hours in advance of a protest, detailing the start and end time, location, purpose, and names of every single protester who plans to partake in the demonstration. Article 9 bans all sit-ins (like the mass pro-Morsi sit-in at Rabaa Al-Adawiya that was violently cleared by security forces) and says that protests must not disturb public order, the interests of citizens, or cut off public roads. Article 14 restricts demonstrations around areas of interest like presidential headquarters, ministries, police stations, courthouses, and international organizations, where some of Egypt’s biggest protests have occurred in recent years. Article 18 states that protesters can be fined up to 100,000 EGP, or around $14,500. The average annual income in Egypt is a mere $3,600.
In a statement addressing the proposed law, Amnesty International blasted it as repressive, saying the interim government has “ignored the lessons of past crackdowns.” According to the human-rights group, the proposed law is harsher than those proposed by past rulers. An anti-terror law is also in the works, which would death sentences for those accused of carrying out acts of violence resulting in fatalities. In the capital’s most recent spate of violence on Sunday evening, masked gunmen open fired on a Coptic Christian wedding party in Cairo. According to the Ministry of Interior, a man, woman, and young girl were killed. Following Morsi's ouster, Copts came under attack from Islamists who blamed the president's downfall on the religious minority group.
“[The protest law] is the same project from SCAF [the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces], then Morsi, and now Sisi, with slight changes,” Gamal Eid, a prominent human rights lawyer and executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, told The Daily Beast. Eid has represented everyone from comedian Bassem Youssef, who was arrested on charges of insulting Morsi, to dozens of families of protesters killed during the 2011 revolution. “We said from the very beginning that it’s against freedom,” he added.
“This law doesn’t deserve the ink it will be written in,” Eid said. “But it will bring to light the oppression of this new regime that came from the people, but is now turning against them.”