By William Fisher
Pro-democracy protesters filled Tahrir Square in central Cairo and an estimated 2000 gathered outside the State Radio and TV headquarters in the Maspero section last week to express their anger over a new law approved by the Egyptian cabinet that would criminalize demonstrations that "disrupt society or business."
The demonstrations in Tahrir Square and many other locations did result in widespread disruptions to virtually every aspect of Egyptian life. It is unclear whether these demonstrations would have been banned under the new law.
Enactment of such a measure again raises the question of whether the country’s interim military rulers are on the side of the pro-democracy movement or the thousands appointed to positions of power by Mubarak. That group includes every member of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
The law imposes heavy fines and possible prison sentences on those who defy the ban and also provides for harsh punishments for calling for or inciting sit-ins. The maximum prison sentence one year and fines of up to half a million Egyptian pounds.
A step in the wrong direction and a threat to the forces that brought about the revolution is the way Opposition groups are characterizing the law. Workers’ groups have promised that protests will continue until the military’s ruling Supreme Council opens a dialogue with workers, business owners and civil and political organizations.
The Youth Coalition called on the Council to reject the law and instead abolish the Emergency Law that has been in effect in Egypt for more than thirty years. The Emergency Law gives the government broad rights prohibited by the Egyptian constitution and allows police and state security agents to arrest and detain citizens without due process or access to lawyers or family and to try civilians in military courts.
Shady Ghozali, a member of the Youth Revolution Coalition, told the newspaper Ahram Online "I'm against it [the law], this is against human rights; peaceful demonstrations are amongst the basic human rights."
News of the law drew instant heated reaction on social media sites like Twitter that disseminate calls for demonstrations, now deemed a criminal act. "Where is Essam Sharaf who said my legitimacy is from Tahrir Square and I will return to the street with you if I can't implement your demands," said blogger Amr Ezzat.
Essam Sharaf was appointed by the Egypt’s military rulers to be Prime Minister of the country after the fall of long-time strongman Hosni Mubarak.
Wael Abbas, activist and blogger, commented on the relatively small turnout in Tahrir Square and said that more people would have come out but were frightened of the anti-protest law.
He fumed: “It has scared people and made them worried that they would be slammed with a jail sentence if they come out today. Even Mubarak wasn’t able to pass such a law, so how could they do it?”
Fellow activist Amr Ezzat, said that the low turnout could also be due to the fact that many students are preoccupied with demonstrations within their university campuses.
Ezzat added that the army approved the anti-protest law to try to avoid accusations that they arrested and abused protesters in Tahrir Square on March 9.
The protesters are also voicing their dissatisfaction with the trials of the former ministers and businessmen who prospered during the Mubarak regime. They have dubbed the court cases “imaginary,” and have called for swift and efficient trials for all, including Mubarak and his family, arguing that the former president used to accuse people and put them in jail quickly, and the same should be done to him.
In Maspero, an up-market section of Cairo that was the site of the burning of the Two Martyrs Coptic Church, Copts are protesting the new law but also the failure to arrest the criminals behind the fire.
“We are out today for a symbolic protest to show that we have strength in the street and that we still insist on our earlier demands,’ says Rola Sobhi, one of the Coptic protesters.
Maspero protesters are also calling for the removal of all media personalities associated with the old regime, and the replacement of all editors of national papers..
The protesters chanted, “The people want to free the media.”
“They want to give legitimacy to their actions and this law gives them that legitimacy,” says Ezzat.
Justice Minister Counselor Mohamed Abdel Aziz Al Guindi said the new measure will abort attempts by those affected by the ouster of the former regime to hinder public order and production, the minister told the Egyptian state television.
He cited factional protests that involved sabotage, vandalism and disorder.
Al Guindi noted that there is no ban on demonstrations and protests that are organized in line with the law. He said factional demonstrations are not prohibited on vacations and after the working hours.
However, the minister pointed out that these demonstrations should not be held in a manner that interrupts economic and commercial activity or traffic movement.
He said the new regulations prohibit factional protests in the working places, organizations, public and private banks.
Dr. Yahya Jamal, professor of constitutional law and vice president of the Council of Ministers, has said that the law will have no impact on peaceful demonstrations. But the Youth Coalition called upon the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to reject the law and abolish the emergency law.
The new measure has also drawn attention from overseas human rights activists. Among them is Chip Pitts, a Lecturer in Law at Stanford University Law School and Oxford University.
Pitts told The Public Record, “: Although supposedly targeted at protests that stop work or destroy property, measures which countries are allowed to take temporarily under international law in order to maintain public order and ensure stability for economic and political development, the fact that the Egyptian Cabinet in the current circumstances would enact such criminalization provides further evidence of how ‘fragile and reversible’ (to borrow from the US’s repeated characterization of Afghanistan) the Egyptian gains remain.”
He added, “Clearly, such laws could be a mask for repressing even wholly peaceful, non-disruptive speech, and seem singularly inappropriate given the historic peaceful protests at the very foundation of the Egyptian renaissance. The law demonstrates both the continued fear of genuine reform within the Egyptian establishment, and incomplete commitment to the democratic rights sought by the protesters. Almost certainly inspired by the crackdowns and retained repressive power in countries like Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Saudi Arabia, this should and will be taken as yet another direct Mubarakist affront to the “Spirit of Tahrir Square” and resisted to the utmost by the Egyptian people.”
The new law has also drawn the ire of another US-based human rights advocate, Human Rights Watch (HRW). The group said the new law violates international law protections for free assembly and should be reversed immediately.
The cabinet’s claims that this law is an exceptional measure under the country’s emergency law, which is still in effect, is a reminder of the need to revoke the emergency law immediately, HRW said. An end to the state of emergency was one of the primary demands of the protesters who gathered in Tahrir Square.
“This virtually blanket ban on strikes and demonstrations is a betrayal of the demands of Tahrir protesters for a free Egypt, and a slap in the face of the families whose loved ones died protesting for freedom,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW” Middle East and North Africa director.
“Any genuine transition toward democracy must be based on respect for the basic rights of the people, including their right to demonstrate,” she said.
HRW said the provisions to criminalize demonstrations that harm public order or public funds are of particular concern because of the sweeping arrests over the past few weeks of protesters accused of disrupting public order and destroying property. On February 25, March 6 and March 9, army and military police officers arrested peaceful demonstrators, detained them, in some cases tortured them, and brought them to trial before military courts that do not meet minimal due process standards.
The military apologized for the excessive use of force against protesters on February 25, but has not issued an apology for the abuses against demonstrators on other occasions, nor has it investigated the cases of torture associated with these arrests. At least 100 protesters remain detained after sentences by military tribunals under the new transitional government. The military has justified these practices based on its stated need to crack down on “thugs” who are disrupting public order.
In the published minutes of the March 24 cabinet meeting, the cabinet justified passing the law by saying that it was responding to a number of requests received “though legal channels.”
The minutes also say that the government was studying how best to “address demands with regards to wages and labor conditions,” referring to the ongoing strikes in various sectors of the economy over the past weeks. It went on to say that it “understood all of the demands by different sectors of society,” but that “the country was currently undergoing a critical period that required protecting its economy and security from manipulation in order to overcome the current crisis and to respond to the legitimate demands of different sectors of society.”
“Concerns about the economy or the security situation are no justification for repressive laws and no substitute for responsible policing and sound economic policies,” Whitson said. “Economic difficulties are no excuse for limiting people’s rights.”
Egypt has been under a state of emergency since 1981, which has allowed for the indefinite detention of thousands of people without charge or trial. In May 2010, then-President Hosni Mubarak renewed the state of emergency for another two years, despite having promised to end it in 2005.