Since the summer of 2013, following the military coup led by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the ruling regime in Egypt has managed to handcuff the public space, surrounding it with harsh restrictions.
This is in stark contrast to the period before the coup when Egyptians, after the popular uprising that took place on January 25 2011, were encouraged to engage actively in managing the country’s affairs through peaceful means and ballot boxes. That period benefited civil society organisations and political parties.
Egypt now finds itself ruled by a military, security and intelligence junta.
Its generals have repeatedly employed repressive means to instil fear among the population to stifle free expression and peaceful opposition.
The military clique’s goal is to keep citizens from the public space, to eliminate the autonomy of civil society organisations and to marginalise political parties that are not controlled by the security and intelligence services.
They have also continued to adopt legislative and legal measures to crack down on the opposition and isolate voices of dissent.
One law, issued on November 24 2013, by the interim president, Adly Mansor, is worth special attention. Making use of his temporary legislative competence, Mansor issued a law “organising the right to public meetings, processions and peaceful demonstrations”.
This dreaded law, known as the “protest law”, should be scrutinised because it provides the basic justification to usurp the freedom of a large number of Egyptian youths, students, workers, Muslim Brotherhood members and others.
It has also created a citizen diaspora, turning Egyptians into a chased community, forced outside the public space and pursued by criminal state institutions, which have tirelessly violated human rights and civil liberties.
The anti-protest law recognises in its eighth article the citizens’ right to “organise a meeting, or conduct a procession or protest”, but requires a notification written in advance three days at minimum and 15 days at maximum. This written notification must then be directed to the police station located in the area of the activity in question.
But in its 10th article it in effect eliminates the citizens’ rights of peaceful assembly and demonstration.
This gives the security services the absolute power to cancel or postpone the demonstration, change the location and modify the route based on “serious information or evidence” about the existence of threats against security and peace, which the security services themselves provide.
This formulation is of a clear despotic nature as it makes the security services both the opponent and the judge, as well as unbinding their hands to abuses without any supervision, control or objective evaluation.
The security services’ authority is only partially checked by allowing citizens to contest the prevention of protest and delaying decisions in the Urgent Matters Courts, which rarely rule against the security services.
In its 14th article, the law grants the security services, represented by the minister of interior, the authority to co-operate with the governors, as local representatives of the president, to identify “secure spaces” around public institutions of all types – military, civilian, administrative and services – in which citizens may not gather.
As a result of this stipulation, the security services have expanded their use of the term “secure spaces” to prevent peaceful demonstrations.
The law also provides a range of financial penalties and prison sentences for those who violate its rulings. On the one hand, violations are defined as the involvement of citizens in the disturbance of public safety and public order, the blockage of roads and means of transportation, and the attack on lives and public and private property.
On the other, the law uses ill-defined terms to cast a wide web to prevent citizens from demonstrating peacefully by criminalising their involvement in disrupting production sites, in obstructing people, in preventing them from exercising their rights and businesses, or in preventing public institutions from fulfilling their mandate.
This second set of stipulated prohibitions de facto cancels freedom of assembly, which is enshrined in the Egyptian Constitution of 2014 and in the international human rights conventions that successive Egyptian governments have ratified.
The anti-protest law grants the security services the authority to use batons as well as rubber and real bullets to disperse meetings, rallies and demonstrations that they themselves deem as violent.
Here, too, the security services become the final arbiter with unchecked authority.
The law does not include an adequate definition of what constitutes an act of violence in demonstrations, and it does not clearly specify what constitutes acts of violence. By legalising “dispersion by force”, however, it unleashes police brutality on citizens.
On the third anniversary of the January Revolution, on January 25 2014, 49 citizens were killed in demonstrations. Eighteen demonstrators were killed on the fourth anniversary of the revolution in 2015, among whom was Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, who was shot by a police officer during a peaceful silent march.
Between 2013 and 2016, hundreds of Egyptians were arrested and taken into police custody following their participation, or attempted participation, in peaceful demonstrations.
Another example of authoritarian lawmaking in Egypt is the amendment of Article 78 of the Penal Code.
This criminalises the public and peaceful activity of nongovernmental organisations, which Egypt’s military junta has classified as enemies and conspirators.
The amended Article 78 voids the legal right of NGOs to receive foreign funding through legal channels, while upholding the provisions of transparency and accountability. It also limits their ability to co-operate with international NGOs.
Article 78 is phrased vaguely and amounts to criminalising matters and actions that are not well defined and to holding citizens and organisations responsible for intentions and promises.
The eradication of autonomous NGOs is the true objective of the new authoritarianism, and it complements the objective of barring citizens from the public space. – Al Jazeera/News 24 Wire