Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The rules of protest

The controversial protest law is to be changed, reports Gamal Essam El-Din

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Political forces have welcomed the 8 June announcement by Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Magdi Al-Agati that the protest law will be amended in line with the 2014 Constitution.

Mohamed Anwar Al-Sadat, chairman of parliament’s Human Rights Committee, told reporters that the move is progressive and could improve Egypt’s human rights record.

“The most negative aspect of the current protest law is that it imposes penalties that infringe on the rights and freedoms enshrined in the 2014 Constitution,” said Sadat.

The semi-independent National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) says the proposed changes reflect a pressing need. “While the constitution grants citizens the right of organising peaceful protests it stipulates this right cannot be exercised at the expense of national security or internal stability,” it continued.

“It is very important any amendments eliminate prison sentences,” Akmal Qortam, chairman of the Conservative Party, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“If we are going to eliminate custodial sentences for publication offences the same must be done for peaceful protests,” said Qortam. “Penalties in the new law should be confined to hefty financial fines.”

Qortam also argued that Article 12 of the current protest law, which allows security forces to use rubber bullets to disperse protesters, should be removed.

“Police must exercise utmost self-restraint and use water cannons and tear gas rather than birdshots and rubber bullets,” he said. “The Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) has been reviewing petitions against some of the articles of the protest law since 2014. We hope it will give pass judgement on them very soon.”

Al-Agati revealed that the protest law is being amended on the instructions of Prime Minister Sherif Ismail. In his announcement, Al-Agati said a government committee would soon meet to propose amendments that ensure the law is in line with the constitution. It has now begun its work.

Critics of the law, which mandates stiff prison terms for those who take part in demonstrations not licenced by the Ministry of Interior, have long complained it infringes on the constitutional right of citizens to hold peaceful protests.

Article 73 of the constitution states that “citizens have the right to organize public meetings, marches, demonstrations and all forms of peaceful protests ... by serving a notification as regulated by law.”

Al-Agati heads the committee charged with amending the protest law.

“There have been many complaints about the law, especially when it comes to the penalties it imposes, and we are examining how these might be amended so they conform with the constitution,” said Al-Agati.

Al-Agati told reporters that the aim of any changes will be to strike a balance between national security and the right to protest peacefully.

“We want to reinforce the rights and freedoms stipulated in the constitution while ensuring these freedoms do not harm public order. There is a thin line between peaceful and violent protests, something about which the constitution is clear.”

The 25-article protest law was issued in November 2013, four months after Mohamed Morsi was removed from office, against a backdrop of violent clashes between police and supporters of the deposed president. It was not among the 341 laws revised by parliament after it convened in January.

The committee mandated to amend the law includes government legal advisors and experts from the NCHR. “It can also seek the advice of independent legal experts and human rights organisations when necessary, and will review protest laws in other countries to [determine if Egypt’s law] is significantly tougher,” said Al-Agati.

“The committee is studying the articles that impose penalties with an eye on making it easier organise peaceful protests.”

Al-Agati’s announcement took many by surprise. Three weeks earlier, he told reporters, “The government has no intention of modifying a law that regulates protests and prevents chaos and disorder on the streets.”

His statement followed President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s announcement in a TV interview that he intends to issue a pardon for the “few” young political activists jailed under the protest law.

In the interview Al-Sisi insisted that there was only a handful of political prisoners in Egypt. “The vast majority of those serving prison sentences in Egypt are doing so for criminal reasons,” he said.

Courts in Cairo and Giza recently reduced the prison sentences handed down to activists who participated in April’s protests against the Egyptian-Saudi agreement redrawing maritime borders.

The agreement, which places two Red Sea islands under Saudi control, provoked demonstrations in Cairo after it was announced.

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