Under the supervision of President ElSisi, a former military officer, Egyptian counter-revolutionary government promulgated a new law governing the right to protest. Not only is this legislation severely restricting the freedom of demonstration, but it is also used to arrest, prosecute and jail opponents through controversial trials. Young revolutionaries and human rights defenders are particularly targeted.
In this first part, we are discussing the provisions of the freedom-destroying law.
Over one year ago, on 24 November 2013 precisely, Egyptian authorities promulgated the first significant legislative document after the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, Islamist President of Egypt, in the summer of 2013. In the absence of a Parliament, the new Protest Law (Law 107 ‘for organizing the right to peaceful public meetings, processions and protests’, was promulgated by Interim President Adly Mansour. A first draft was submitted to political parties for comment, and suggested amendments were sent. Although minor adjustments were done, the final version of the law immediately gave rise to discontent among opponents and human rights defenders.
The Protest Law “seeks to criminalize all forms of peaceful assembly, including demonstrations and public meetings, and gives the State free hand to disperse peaceful gatherings by use of force”, 19 local Egyptian NGOs wrote in a common press release. Expressing also concerns, American-based NGO Human Rights Watch noted that the law was characterized by an “overall repressive character” and went “well beyond the limitations permitted under international law”, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As for the British NGO Amnesty International, it vigorously condemned the new legislation: qualified as “a serious setback”, the Protest Law “grants the Ministry of Interior wide discretionary powers over protests and lays out broad circumstances in which demonstrators can be found to violate the law”, the organisation wrote in a statement.
What are the main reproaches directed to the new legislation on protests by human rights defenders? First of all, experts consider that the right granted to the Interior Ministry to ban demonstrations or public meetings goes too far. While Article 1 states that “citizens have the right to hold and join public meetings, marches and peaceful protests”, article 10 indicates that the Interior Minister or the Security Director may “prohibit” a public meeting, a march or a protest “if serious information or evidence of threats to security or peace are obtained by them”.
A legislation far too restrictive
According to NGOs, the latter constitutes “vague” or “loose” grounds, which authorities may use to “not only (…) prevent or forcibly disperse protests by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, but (also) essentially (…) ban all opposition protests.”. While the law allows in theory peaceful assemblies, it sets actually a range of situations that may be deemed to be violations of its provisions. Article 7 enumerates them: “disrupting public security”, “obstructing production”, “hampering citizen’s interests”, “affecting the course of justice, public utilities”, “cutting roads or transportation, or road, water, or air transport, or obstructing road traffic or assaulting human life, or public or private property.”
These terms are “particularly vague”, Human Rights Watch says, and would “allow the authorities to criminalize a range of legitimate peaceful public meetings and demonstrations”. For example, a strike in a factory, a protest in front of a court or a march on a large avenue could be prohibited on the basis of the new law. In addition, article 5 bans also protests in places of worship, or their arena, or their annexes, a provision that was largely considered to be tailor-made to prevent Muslim Brothers from demonstrating.
Because of these numerous restrictions, international and local NGOs believe that the Protest Law is not in line with the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, which Egypt signed in 1967 and ratified in 1982. Its Article 21 dictates indeed that “no restrictions may be placed on the exercise of [the] right [of peaceful assembly] other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
Custodial sanctions and “hyperbolic” fines
Sanctions or punishments for violations of the Law’s provisions are also deemed particularly problematic. Anyone who organizes a protest without prior notification to a police station (article 8) will be punished by a fine comprised up to 30,000EGP (3,470EUR, article 21), which is a quite high sum in Egypt. Moreover, the law allows prison sentence in several cases: for those found to violate provisions of Article 7 (obstruction of production, cut of roads, etc.), which is punished by a jail sentence comprised between 2 and 5 years (and a fine up to 100,000EGP – 11,500EUR -, article 19). In addition, those who wear a mask “hiding their facial features” during a protest may be condemned to a jail sentence of up to one year, and a fine up to 50,000EGP (5,700EUR, article 20)!
Egyptian Human rights NGOs denounced these custodial sanctions and “hyperbolic fines”, that are “incompatible with the nature of the punishable act, (…) a matter which contravenes the most basic international principles and standards”. Far from this repressive approach indeed, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association recently recommended establishing an enabling legal environment for peaceful assemblies, through implementation of a set of best practices. Country laws should not only state clearly their “presumption in favour of holding peaceful assemblies”, but also “facilitate and protect” them.
UN Special Rapporteur believes also that States have a positive obligation to actively protect peaceful assemblies, especially “from individuals or groups of individuals, including agents provocateurs and counter demonstrators, who aim at disrupting” protests. He adds that “Assembly organizers and peaceful participants should not be held responsible and liable for the violent behaviour of others”. By doing so, the Special Rapporteur places the responsibility for peaceful assemblies on States, and not on protesters alone. And when it comes to the use of force in case of an incident during a demonstration, UN Special Rapporteur recommends that “wherever possible, law enforcement authorities should not resort to force”. He refers to Human Rights Council’s resolution 19/35 and makes it clear that “where force is absolutely necessary”, authorities should ensure that “no one is subject to excessive or indiscriminate use of force”.
Security forces may use lethal weapons against protestors
These recommendations are not reflected at all in the new Egyptian Protest Law. On the contrary, it permits the use of an excessive force, according to human rights defenders. They particularly incriminate article 11, that allows the forcible dispersal of a protest by security forces, and article 13, that lists allowed means that security forces can resort to in case of a failure in dispersing a demonstration. These means include rubber bullets and “non-rubber bullets”. Egyptian NGOs firmly opposed to these provisions, since “such ammunition may lead to death”. Amnesty International added that as a result of them, security forces are provided with “a legal framework for the use of excessive force against any protesters”.
Circumstances where firearms can be used are also widely criticized. According to the law, the police can use lethal force in legitimate self-defence (Article 13), “which under Egyptian law is broadly defined to grant police discretion to include circumstances other than those strictly necessary to protect life”, Human Rights Watch remarked. Article 13 also states that firearms can be used in case of a “danger posed against life, money, or property”; yet, the inclusion of money and property in this provision “contravenes international law and standards”, Amnesty International notices, since firearms should be only used when they are “the sole means of defence against an imminent threat of death or serious injury”.