Wednesday,23 August, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)
Wednesday,23 August, 2017
Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Tweaking the ban

Amendments to the protest law were ratified by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. But are the changes more than cosmetic, asks Ahmed Morsy

Last week President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi ratified changes to the protest law approved by parliament a month ago. Amendments to the controversial piece of legislation are limited to Article 10 which in the original required organisers of protests to first secure the approval of the Interior Ministry.

Now Article 10 requires the Interior Ministry to prove before a judge that any protest represents a threat to public peace before it can ban or postpone a demonstration, or change its route. Judges are also required to promptly publish their reasons for upholding or rejecting Ministry of Interior requests.

In December 2016 the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) ruled Article 10 of the protest law unconstitutional. The SCC said organisers of street protests were obliged only to notify the authorities of any planned demonstration, not to obtain prior approval.

The change to Article 10 met with mixed reactions from NGOs, rights lawyers and activists.

“The amendment is acceptable,” political activist and member of the National Council for Human Rights George Ishak told Al-Ahram Weekly. “We have long insisted that demonstrations ought to be held after notifying the authorities, not with their prior approval.”

Ishak is far less happy that the newly ratified law continues to stipulate custodial sentences for protesters. “The right to express an opinion cannot be met by imprisonment,” he says.

Article 7 of the protest law penalises protesters who harm state security, hinder public or state interests, disrupt public transport or the work of state institutions. Individuals found guilty of any of these vaguely worded offences could, under Article 19 of the law, face prison sentences of one to five years, and a fine of between LE50,000 and LE100,000.

“The sanctions included in Article 19 are disproportionate given that demonstrating is a constitutional right,” rights lawyer Ahmed Hossam told the Weekly.

Since it was issued in November 2013 by interim president Adli Mansour NGOs and political parties have repeatedly asked for the protest law to be changed. Thousands of secular activists have been tried, convicted and sentenced to jail for organising or taking part in peaceful demonstrations since the law was passed.

“Cases involving tax evasion and financial corruption regularly go to reconciliation. Mubarak and his sons received three-year prison sentences for embezzling LE125 million of public funds. Yet demonstrators face five-year jail terms under the current protest law,” says Hossam.

“And given the mindset of the security forces every demonstration will be perceived as a threat to public security. The Interior Ministry will oppose every protest in court.”

Lawyer Tarek Negeida, a leading member of the Popular Current Party, says the changes to the law only tweak the way demonstrations are prevented.

“Before the changes the Interior Ministry banned demonstrations based on its investigations and assessment of how they will impact on public order. Now it will be the court that bans them, based on the same investigations and assessments submitted by the Interior Ministry.”

“We had hoped for comprehensive changes that would allow the law to organise demonstrations, not these cosmetic amendments that continue to allow a wholesale ban on protest,” says Negeida.

During parliamentary discussions of the draft amendment a handful of MPs objected to changes being restricted to Article 10. MP Tarek Al-Khouli submitted a report to the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee arguing for articles 12, 13, 14, 18, 19 and 20 — which cover custodial sentences, public gatherings, places of demonstration and the use of force in unauthorised demonstrations — to be changed as well. His draft was rejected.

The same fate met MP Akram Kourtam’s own draft changes to 11 of the protest law’s articles.

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