The protest law passed by Hazem al-Beblawi’s government last year has proven to be as draconian and dangerous as many critics predicted.
Today, a group of activists who protested the Protest Law, including prominent human rights defender and feminist activist Yara Sallam, as well as 20-year-old activist Sanaa Seif, face trial along with dozens of others who were arrested last Saturday.
Sanaa is Alaa Abd El Fattah’s younger sister. Abd El Fattah, as you may well know, is an activist targeted consistently by every regime to pass through Egypt and was sentenced to 15 years “in absentia,” even though he was in the courthouse awaiting to be called into the courtroom. He was charged with organizing a protest that he did not organize. The real organizers tried to turn themselves in and were turned away by the police. He was also charged with an array of apparently fabricated charges including “stealing a walkie-talkie.”
Leading activists from the April 6 Youth Movement, such as Ahmed Maher, were given 3 years imprisonment for protesting peacefully in front of the courthouse in Abdeen. And more recently, one of Alexandria’s most prominent activists, Mahienour al-Massry, received a 2-year sentence for participating in a demonstration remembering the slain Khaled Saeed, whose murder in 2010 at the hands of police helped spark protests that eventually contributed to the January 25 uprising in 2011.
Yara and Sanaa are charged not only with unpermitted protest but also trumped-up charges including weapons possession. To put the integrity of these sorts of charges in perspective, one of the convicted journalists from Al Jazeera received an extra three years in prison for “weapons possession.” The “weapon” was a spent bullet casing he had picked up as a souvenir from a protest, something countless people have done.
The response of state officials in defense of the draconian law has been to point out that every country has laws regulating protests and requiring permits, arguing that condemning Egypt’s protest law is applying an unfair double standard in Egypt, while respected democracies such as the United States and United Kingdom have laws in place regulating and permitting protests. It is entirely true that most democracies have laws regulating protests and request advanced notice from organizers in the interest of “public order.” However, the analogy stops there.
The penalties for illegal protest in these countries are almost exclusively a fine. If you’re unlucky, you might find yourself spending a few nights in jail. In Egypt, the minimum sentence for participating in an unpermitted protest is 2 years in prison with a maximum penalty of 5 years and a maximum fine of 100,000 LE (approximately 9 times the average annual income in Egypt). A comparable figure in the US in proportion to income levels would be over US$330,000. The lowest fine for participation in the unpermitted protest is half that figure.
The official punishments for the law are only one problem with the law and its implementation. It has become a regular habit of officials to add an array of often absurd and baseless charges to the charge sheets of those arrested. The activists who were arrested at a recent protest outside of the presidential palace were charged with violent crimes and carrying weapons although there is no evidence of any such crimes being committed in the footage of the protest. Indeed, the only illegal violence perpetrated that we can find evidence of is the police once again deploying civilian-dressed armed thugs to attack demonstrators. The Protest Law clearly requires that all police involved in clearing a protest or arresting protesters must be in uniform. Unfortunately, there are countless examples of the police regularly ignoring this law while promoting the dubious claim that they are engaging in “law enforcement.”
Many in the public continue to support this law even with its extreme punishments, complaining that protests in Egypt have paralyzed society because of the violent and destructive behavior of protesters. They claim that this tendency towards violence and destruction of property makes Egypt’s protests different from what takes place in western democracies. The reality is, however, that laws already exist prohibiting assault, carrying unlicensed weapons and using such weapons. It is already illegal to destroy property, and if a protester should actually do any of these things, there are an adequate number of laws available to prosecute such crimes. A unique law targeting political dissidents, such as the Protest Law, is one that seeks to repress political expression. Its objective is not to regulate violent protest (which is already illegal) but rather to give the regime a tool with which it can intimidate its opponents.
The law has placed behind bars many of Egypt’s finest and most talented young political leaders of principle. Egypt’s political future rots in prison while those who were responsible for decades of decline in Egypt are finding themselves securing release orders from courts and seeing the charges they faced set aside by an increasingly sympathetic political leadership.
This is in addition to the fact that part of the Protest Law is explicitly unconstitutional. Article 73 of the Egyptian constitution states that “The right to peaceful, private meetings is guaranteed, without the need for prior notification. Security forces may not to attend, monitor or eavesdrop on such gatherings.” However, Article 8 of the Protest Law requires that political meetings, including electoral meetings, give notice to local police stations. The law is currently being challenged for being unconstitutional, and while one hopes the courts will strike it down, their zealous enforcement of the law to date causes one to doubt the likelihood of this happening.
At its core, it is clear that the purpose of this law and the draconian manner in which it is being selectively implemented against regime critics has less to do with order and the rule of law and decidedly more to do with rebuilding the fear that was broken on January 25. Some say that after January 25, the fear was broken and there’s no going back, but that will only be true if people are prepared to challenge and confront those who seek to rebuild that fear and defend those who have the courage to mount that challenge.