Editor's note: The interim Egyptian government recently drafted a protest law to curb the Egyptian people's right to hold peaceful protests. Currently, the interim president, Adly Mansour, has asked that the law be put to a "national dialogue." H.A. Hellyer writes that while all countries should have laws that reasonably regulate the right to protest, the law should not be intended to enforce the power of the state, over and beyond the natural rights of the individual and civil society.
“Come on. We’ve got to go. It’s time. Enough is enough. Mubarak has to hear our voice.”
“But we can’t – protesting like this is illegal. No, really, honestly, you’ve got to believe me. I’m not making this up, I promise.”
- Egyptian Protestor, January 2011
“Citizens, I implore you: Take to the streets, and give me a mandate to fight terror.”
“Apologies, citizens. I’ve just been told that to protest like this is illegal. Forget I said anything.”
- General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, July 2013
“Either Mursi goes, or we go!”
“But we can’t go – protesting is not allowed. Look, it says so in the law – I’ve got it right here.”
- Egyptian Protestor, June 2013
Seeing as there are those who wantonly believe the most absurd tales imaginable, it seems necessary to point out that the quotes above are fictional. No one said or did that – because it would have been preposterous. But it wasn’t preposterous for the Egyptian government to draft such a law to significantly circumscribe protests, and deliver it to the interim president for consideration – apparently under the assumption that such a law would actually stop protesters from protesting. It’s not utterly clear why, particularly given widespread opposition from within and outside the government – but then, very little seems to be completely clear in this “transitional” process.
Protest movements over the past three years in Egypt have been involved in some of the most critical (albeit not always wise) political statements in Egyptian modern history. Those statements were invariably not aimed at encouraging the Egyptian state to continue on the path it had chosen for itself – they were aimed at demanding acknowledgement and recognition since a significant number of people disagreed with the state. By its very nature, protest is controversial and disorderly. The test of the state in this regard is not to see how quickly or easily they can remove that controversy or disorderliness, but to see how effectively it can remove the reason for that disagreement from the street. The easiest way is to respond (if not always agree), from within the corridors of power and authority, so as not to remove the ability of those on the street to respond.
On this law, it is not simply a few unruly revolutionary types that are dissatisfied with the law. The deputy prime minister’s objections were overruled in the cabinet – not least due to an intervention from the ministry of the interior who, naturally, advocated that the law was “necessary.” The irony of ironies is that the Salafist party al-Nour expressed its opposition – the same al-Nour Party that reportedly blocked Ziad Baha al-Din from becoming prime minister. How different things might have turned out over the past few months had al-Din been appointed.
But not to worry, the immensely pro-government “Tamarod” movement has also come out against the measure. Irony is not in short supply in Egypt. A group partially responsible for a road-map that created an interim government, may find the measures it used to push that road-map forward impossible, due to that same interim government.
It is not simply a single lone voice within the cabinet that opposed this draft that Interim President Adly Mansour received for consideration – former presidential candidate, and leader of the Strong Egypt Party, Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh attacked the draft, as did the April 6 Youth Movement, former MP Mustafa al-Naggar and noted diplomat and writer Ezzedine Choukri. Of course, it is highly likely that large portions of the intelligentsia will deepen their attacks of these individuals and others as “secretly” supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood and/or terrorism. That does seem to be the smear of choice nowadays.
A tool in a war on terror?
Indeed, Gamal Eid, the executive director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, indicated his own concerns that the measure will be presented as a necessary tool in the “war on terror.” The Social Democrats Party “categorically” rejected the law, calling on “all other democratic forces to stand together against the issuance of this repressive law and to stay united against the counter-revolutionary forces and the advocates of the return of the security state.” When the political party of the prime minister and the deputy prime minister say something like that, you have to stop and wonder if someone missed the memo.
It is not that there should not be a law relating to protests, sit-ins and assemblies. There should indeed be one – every country ought to have one. The question is about what the aim of the law ought to be. Is it to ensure that the right to freedom of assembly and protest is protected, alongside the rights of those who may be impacted by such gatherings? In this case, is it about protecting the rights, freedoms and dignity of Egyptians? Or, as the critics claim, is such a law about enforcing the power of the state, over and beyond the natural rights of the individual and civil society?
Moreover – beyond the need to regulate such things – this is Egypt. The phenomenon of the “protest” is indelibly responsible for the nature of this polity. The people of Egypt have bought the right to the freedom to peacefully protest against one’s leaders with their blood, sweat and tears. It’s not a right that any government ought to simply sign away.
At present, the interim president has indicated he’d prefer to have the law put to a “national dialogue.” Let us hope that this “national dialogue” consigns this draft law to where it ought to belong – under the feet of Egyptian protesters – and that a new law emerges that upholds the Egyptian right to remind any and every government that just as Egyptians went to protest against one government, Egyptians may do so again.