CAIRO, Egypt- A law imposing draconian restrictions on demonstrations promulgated by Egypt’s military-backed government late last month has raised concerns that the Arab world’s most populous country is sliding back towards the authoritarianism that defined the three decade-long rule of deposed President Hosni Mubarak. The law’s passage was denounced by human rights groups, activists and politicians across the political spectrum and sparked more than a week of daily protests, adding more stress to an already volatile atmosphere.
The statute, signed into law by interim-President Adly Mansour on November 24, requires protest organizers to seek permission from the country’s Interior Ministry at least three days in advance of a demonstration. Under the controversial law, the names of the organizers of the demonstration, the route of the protest, and the start and end times of the gathering must be submitted to the Interior Ministry. The law also grants the Interior Ministry, an institution known for its authoritarian tendency’s and aversion to civil liberties, the authority “to ban a public meeting or demonstration, or postpone it, transfer it to another place, or change its route,” if the ministry determines that the protest constitutes, “a threat to peace and security.” Interior Ministry decisions banning, postponing or moving demonstrations can be appealed to the country’s Administrative Court.
In addition to creating a stringent legal framework for holding demonstrations, the law also establishes harsh punishments for protesters who engage in violence, carry weapons or even wear masks. People found guilty of carrying weapons at demonstrations can be imprisoned for up to seven years and fined between 100,000 and 300,000 Egyptian Pounds while those convicted of engaging in violence at protests can receive jail sentences of up to two years and fines between 50,000 and 100,000 Egyptian Pounds.
The law also stipulates that protesters who wear masks with the intention of committing a crime can be imprisoned for up to one year and fined between 30,000 and 50,000 Egyptian Pounds. Organizers of demonstrations that have not been sanctioned by the Interior Ministry, which now has blanket authority to approve or reject protest requests, will face fines of up to 30,000 Egyptian Pounds.
Since the protest law’s passage, demonstrations against the statute have been held on a daily basis, as protesters, both secular and Islamist, test the military-backed governments resolve to enforce the ban on public gatherings that haven’t been sanctioned by the Interior Ministry.
On November 26, 2013 demonstrators protesting against a provision in the draft constitution that authorizes military courts to try civilians were forcibly dispersed outside the Shura Council, the upper house of the Egyptian Parliament, by baton-wielding police firing tear gas and shooting water cannons. A second demonstration in Cairo that day was also forcibly broken up by security forces. Both rally’s were shut down because the organizers of the protests had failed to obtain the permits that the new law mandates.
Later in the week, Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood took to the streets and held unsanctioned protests. On November 29, 2013, up to 200 people were arrested across the country as the Islamist organization staged unapproved demonstrations that were broken up by security forces in the capital, Cairo, and the cities of Giza, Alexandria, Suez, Mahallah and Qena. Two days later, security forces used tear gas to disperse Brotherhood protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the 18-day revolution that ended Mubarak’s 29 year long rule.
Egypt has lurched from one crisis to the next since Mubarak was toppled by massive demonstrations in early 2011. The country’s first freely elected president, Mohammad Morsi, an Islamist backed by the Brotherhood, was ousted in a popularly-backed July 3 coup spearheaded by General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, the defense minister and chief of the country’s armed forces.
Since the July coup, the Brotherhood, an Islamist movement founded in Egypt in 1928, has been the target of a brutal crackdown by Egypt’s secular-leaning military. The Brotherhood has been banned, while many of its leaders, including the groups Supreme Guide, Mohammad Badie, and his powerful deputy, Khairat el-Shater, have been put on trial. With the passage of the new protest law, the military’s noose around the Brotherhood’s neck will only grow tighter.
– Eric Erdahl