Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1313, (29 september - 5 October 2016)
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1313, (29 september - 5 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The right to demonstrate

The Supreme Constitutional Court begins hearings which will determine the future of the controversial protest law, writes Mona El-Nahhas

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Al-Ahram Weekly

On Saturday, the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) begins reviewing two appeals contesting the constitutionality of four articles of the law regulating peaceful protests.

The court session follows a report, issued last month by the SCC Commissioners’ Authority, which found two of the contested articles unconstitutional. 

Passed in November 2013, months after the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, the 25-article protest law sparked an outcry from activists who argued it effectively banned, rather than organised, all forms of protest. The law obliges organisers to secure the approval of the Interior Ministry ahead of any demonstration and stipulates harsh penalties for those who do not.

Hundreds of Islamist and non-Islamist activists have been jailed for organising or taking part in unauthorised protests since the law was issued.

Rights lawyers began contesting the constitutionality of the law following the endorsement of the 2014 constitution. Some articles of the law, they argue, impose restrictions on the right to protest in flagrant violation of constitutional guarantees. Article 73 of the constitution states that “citizens have the right to organise public meetings, marches, demonstrations and all forms of peaceful protests… by giving advance notification as regulated by law”.

In mid-July 2014 the SCC referred two appeals — one filed by human rights lawyer Khaled Ali, the second by lawyer Hassan Saleh — to the Commissioners' Authority. Ali's petition contested the constitutionality of articles 8 and 10 of the law while Saleh contested articles 7 and 19.

Articles 8 and 10 require the organisers of any demonstration to notify the Interior Ministry up to 15 days ahead and allow the Interior Ministry to ban, delay or change the route of any protest it deems a security threat.

Article 7 criminalises participation in any protest deemed to threaten security, public order or which obstructs traffic. Article 19 stipulates a jail term of no less than two years and/or a fine of no less than LE50,000 for anyone taking part in such a protest.

The Commissioners’ Authority took two years to compile a report and submit it to the SCC. The report backs Saleh's appeal against articles 7 and 19 but recommends Ali's lawsuit be refused.

The report concludes that article 7 contradicts constitutional stipulations against ambiguity in legislation, and that the penalties contained in article 19 are too draconian for the alleged crime.

SCC spokesperson Ragab Selim defended the time taken to compile the report. “It is not unusual for constitutional lawsuits to take time,” he said. “Any lawsuit presented before the SCC is subject to thorough scrutiny.”

Lawyer Essam Al-Islamboli stresses that Commissioners' Authority reports are advisory.  “The SCC has the right to take the report into account while passing its ruling or ignore it completely. It is up to the SCC,” he said.

On 20 September Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Magdi Al-Agati announced that the government committee amending the protest law would take into account any recommendations made in the report. The role of the committee, he said, does not overlap with the SCC’s hearing sessions since the committee’s job is to present suggestions.

Al-Agati added that amendments were expected to be finalised within a month after which they will be referred to cabinet for endorsement. If endorsed, the changed law must then be referred to parliament.

In an attempt to placate public anger at the law the government signaled its willingness to introduce some changes last June. At the time Al-Agati promised any amendments would be in line with the constitution. A committee was then formed to suggest changes and, according to Al-Agati, “to review legislation regulating protests in different countries to determine if Egypt's law is significantly tougher”.

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