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Thursday, 5 December 2013

Protesting the protest law

Security forces use force while dispersing an unlicensed protest
Security forces use force while dispersing an unlicensed protest 

Over the past 10 days, the recently endorsed protest law has been met with strong opposition from various political parties, public figures, political and legal activists and human-rights organisations.

Protests have been staged on a daily basis in clear defiance of the law and in order to object to the arrests of anti-law activists and politicians. The 6 April activist movement has called for a week of protests starting on 30 November. The Friday Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations were staged with acts of violence recorded and with dozens arrested.

However, the government has said that it intends to continue with the implementation of the law, adamantly backed by the cabinet of Prime Minister Hazem Al-Beblawi.

“There are no penalties for protesting, and the penalties in the law are only against those carrying weapons or not respecting peaceful demonstrations.

 The law aims to protect peaceful protesters through providing guarantees of their safety,” Al-Beblawi said on Sunday at a meeting attended by the spokespersons of various ministries.

In a statement released earlier this week, the cabinet stressed its full support for the law and for the police, saying that the latter had made significant sacrifices in order to ensure Egypt’s stability and security. It said that it respected freedom of expression as long as this was practiced within an “organised framework” and that this freedom did not lead to “chaos”.

The statement came shortly after the security forces had forcibly dispersed a peaceful demonstration held in front of the Shura Council on 26 November in order to protest against constitutional articles allowing military trials of civilians.

 Dozens of protesters were arrested by the police, who used water cannons and tear gas to disperse the rally.
Several security violations were reported, and activists said that several female protesters had been sexually harassed by the security forces during the dispersal.

On the same day and in response to the arrests of the protesters, hundreds of angry demonstrators gathered in Talaat Harb Square in downtown Cairo in order to protest against what they said were the losses of the gains made by the two popular revolutions over the past three years.

The protest was also dispersed by the security forces only minutes after it had begun for the same reason as the dispersal of the earlier one — that the protesters had not applied for a permit before holding their protest.
Prominent activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah was arrested on 28 November after his house was raided by the security forces. 

6 April founder Ahmed Maher also handed himself in to the prosecutor-general on 30 November. Both Abdel-Fattah and Maher were accused of inciting violence and for calling for the 26 November unauthorised protest.

The Revolutionary Front and 6 April organised a protest on 30 November in solidarity with the detainees in front of the Abdeen court, where Maher was handing himself in to the prosecutor-general’s office. The protest had the title “Turn Yourself In,” and the protesters held up their ID cards as a gesture of handing themselves in to the prosecution.

On 3 December, political activist Ahmed Doma was arrested on charges of inciting violence during the Abdeen clashes. Dozens of activists headed to Basateen police station where Doma was detained, to show solidarity with their colleague.

On 1 December, the prosecutor-general renewed the detention of Abdel-Fattah for 15 days pending investigations. The following day, Maher was sent to Tora Prison in accordance with a decree passed by the general prosecution that ordered his imprisonment for four days pending investigations. “I believe that the regime is trying to wage a campaign of intimidation by suppressing freedoms and imprisoning activists,” one protester said.

Protests have also been held in various governorates against the new law by civil revolutionary forces, and not only by Islamists as has been the case over recent months. Hundreds of protesters gathered on 30 November in downtown Cairo to call for the release of detainees arrested during the Shura Council protest.
The protesters raised signs reading “this is not a protest,” sarcastically defying the “anti-protest law”. They stressed their right to protest and expressed concerns that the new law would undermine the right to protest, a key gain of the 25 January Revolution.

“What is happening marks a return to [Hosni] Mubarak’s oppressive regime, in which state security made arbitrary arrests and suppressed protests,” said 29-year-old engineer Ayman Kamel, who was participating in the protest.

The new law includes the provision that protest organisers notify the Interior Ministry of any protest at least three working days prior to its scheduled date. The ministry also has the right to refuse to allow any protest.
“In cases in which the security bodies believe a protest, according to the information they have, constitutes a threat to peace and security, the interior minister or assigned police chief reserves the right to ban a public meeting or demonstration, or postpone it, transfer it to another place, or change its route… Organisers may contest a ministerial decree before the Administrative Court, and a judge must rule on the case immediately,” the law says.

According to the new law, the Interior Ministry must receive the names of the organisers of a protest, its route, its scheduled beginning and end times, and even details of the slogans that will be chanted.
Mustafa Kamel Al-Sayed, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, said that it was acceptable to have a law that regulates protests, but the question was why this law had been timed in the way that it had.

“There is tension in the streets, not only from the Islamists but also from several of the civil revolutionary forces that participated in the 25 January Revolution that now believe that their revolution is being stolen from them by the remnants of the Mubarak regime and the return of the police state,” Al-Sayed told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“The cabinet’s firm stand towards enforcing the law makes it appear as if it is shutting its eyes to the demands of opposing voices, not only among the political elite but also inside the government itself,” he added.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of International Cooperation Ziad Bahaaeddin said this week that the law should have been issued by an elected legislative body. “I rejected this law, and I still do,” Bahaaeddin said. “Its articles restrict the freedom of peaceful protest.”
He added that in his opinion the existing penal code already included “sufficient articles” to deter non-peaceful protests.

Leader of the leftist Socialist Popular Alliance and deputy head of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) Abdel-Ghaffar Shokr said that the protest law needed to be reconsidered for four reasons.
“The cabinet needs to reconsider the law as it does not differentiate between peaceful protests and criminal acts committed during protests. There is no need to include committing crimes in a protest law since the penal code already deals with crimes,” Shokr said.

“Secondly, the notification of the Interior Ministry of the intention to stage a protest should be shortened to 48 hours. Thirdly, while the new law imposes a cordon around government buildings and essential facilities, it does not specify an exact distance and it is up to the authorities to demarcate the areas where public demonstrations can take place. Lastly, the draconian penalties specified by the law are not helpful,” he added.

According to the law, anyone carrying a weapon during protests can be imprisoned for up to seven years and fined between LE100,000 and LE300,000. Anyone engaging in an act of violence during a protest can be imprisoned for up to two years and fined a sum ranging from between LE50,000 and LE100,000.
Wearing a mask during a protest with the aim of committing a crime can be punished by up to one year in jail and a fine ranging from between LE30,000 and LE50,000.

The NCHR condemned the protest law, arguing that the government had ignored its recommendations on the first draft before passing it.

“NCHR members are appointed by the cabinet, and it acts to help improve the government’s image. When we find its members saying that the cabinet ignored its recommendations, it means we are facing a truly repressive regime,” activist and blogger Wael Abbas told the Weekly.

The law has also been condemned by the international human-rights group Amnesty International, which said that the new law placed broad restrictions on protests in Egypt. The law was a “serious setback” that posed a grave threat to freedom of assembly and gave the security forces free reign to use excessive force, including lethal force, against demonstrators, it said.

Human Rights Watch, an international NGO, also said that the new law gave the police a free hand to “attack protesters” and “carte blanche” to ban protests in Egypt.

For Al-Sayed, there is a tremendous legacy of distrust between the civil revolutionary forces and the security forces. “Due to this distrust, activists and revolutionary groups object to the idea of getting prior approval for demonstrations from the police,” he said.

Abbas said that the proper role of the police was to protect and serve citizens, but in Egypt the police were oppressive and subservient to the will of the regime.

“This was clear during the rule of the two former presidents Mubarak and [Mohamed] Morsi. Despite the two revolutions of 25 January and 30 June , the Ministry of the Interior has not conducted any real purges. Police officers accused of killing peaceful demonstrators in 2011 and 2012 have not been held accountable. On the contrary, they have been acquitted in nearly all cases,” Abbas said.

5 Egypt News: Protesting the protest law Security forces use force while dispersing an unlicensed protest  Over the past 10 days, the recently endorsed protest law has been me...
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