Observations on Egypt’s Protest Law

It is probably no exaggeration to say that modern Egyptians are, of all the peoples in the world, the most prone to demonstrating and protests. Through continued demonstrations, Egyptians significantly altered their political reality and brought about significant changes, to the extent that they were able to overthrow two political regimes in less than three years. However, the issue of demonstrations was and still is a source of debate, since a large segment of the Egyptian society has begun to reject the idea of demonstrations, believing that they have led to nothing but deterioration in all aspects of life, not to mention the violence and loss of life witnessed, especially after July 3.

Amid this debate, the need for a law to regulate the “right” to demonstrate has been ever-present. The now dissolved Shura Council was on the verge of issuing a similar law during President Mohamed Morsi’s rule. Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawy’s government recently presented a final copy of the draft protest law to the interim President of the Republic for his approval. The justifications for issuing this law are that demonstrations for political demands have gone beyond the legal limits and become a burden on Egyptian society, requiring legislative intervention in order to regulate the right to demonstrate.

There is no doubt that passing a law to regulate the right to demonstrate is, in principle, an extremely important issue. It is not acceptable for this right to be “absolute,” without any restrictions, and for citizens to demonstrate at the time, place, and in the manner that they wish regardless of the harm that it causes other citizens or public interests. Perhaps the Egyptian condition is the most prominent example of this. Demonstrations have gone beyond being simply an exercise of the right to express one’s opinion and have begun to affect security, as a number of protestors while demonstrating, obstruct roads and public transportation, in addition to other violations.

The most difficult question here is: how can this right be regulated in a way that allows demonstrating as a means of expression while also protecting the public from being harmed by the exercising of this right. However, and more importantly in the Egyptian context in the mean time, there are two additional issues that must be discussed. The first is the timing of the passage of the law, since Egyptian society is sharply divided, with a segment of Egyptians protesting against the events of July 3, and what has followed. Passing the law to regulate demonstrations at this time will cement the belief that it is directed against a certain faction of Egyptians, and that the law’s purpose is only to restrict this faction’s right to protest and express its opinion. This can only lead to additional escalation and crises. I believe that the repeated call for continual demonstrations on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters is a useless move. These demonstrations will not achieve any political gains or any change in political reality. Likewise, these demonstrations will result in a continued decline in the Muslim Brotherhood’s popularity. Yet this does not change the reality that all citizens have the right to demonstrate in the manner and at the time they desire, as long as they do so peacefully and adhere to the law.

Additionally, the passage of the law to regulate demonstrations at this time conflicts with an important legal principle, known as “generality in legal rules.” This means that any law issued should be a general rule that applies to all citizens without discrimination. Therefore, the passage of the demonstration law at this time clearly violates this legal principle, because the law is fundamentally directed against the Muslim Brotherhood and its followers who continue to demonstrate against the current authority in Egypt. This will lead, in the midst of this extreme polarization, to the law not being implemented since it will be rejected and challenged by the Muslim Brotherhood. This will prevent the law from achieving its objectives, and it will simply be ink on paper.

Finally, it must be pointed out that if the goal of passing the demonstration law at this time is an attempt to control the violence resulting from demonstrations during recent months, the Emergency Law, which has been in effect since August 14, along with the criminal procedures law are sufficient to confront any violence, whether resulting from demonstrations or any other causes. Under this law, and the regular criminal law, the security apparatus enjoys wide authorities to control recurring acts of violence.

The second issue is the manner in which the law is passed. It is well known that legislative authority is currently in the hands of the interim president, according to the constitutional declaration issued on July 8 2013. The interim president should exercise this authority only in exceptional cases and only when completely necessary.

For all of the above reasons, it is not necessary that the law be passed right now. Waiting for the election of a new parliament, and for that parliament to perform its legislative function, is the ideal situation. Likewise, this law touches on one of the fundamental rights of Egyptians, and has a political nature. It is therefore best that it is issued by a popularly elected parliament, and after wide political debate, not by an appointed exceptional authority.  

Yussef Auf is a fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. His work focuses on Egyptian constitutional issues, elections, and judicial matters. He has been a judge in Egypt since 2007.

Image: Photo: Jonathan Rashad