THE DRAFT Protest Law to regulate the right to peaceful assembly, issued by Egyptian Interim President Adly Mansour on Sunday, has been widely criticised as an attack on basic democratic rights, including the right to strike.
Though President Mansour has the necessary legislative authority to amend the draft Protest Law before passing it, the version the interim president passed stayed close to the final version approved by the cabinet and passed to the presidency on 12 November.
The text of the law was read at a press conference held by Presidential Spokesman Ihab Badawi on Sunday evening.
Article 5 prohibits any assemblies for political purposes in places of worship. It also prohibits launching marches from or to houses of worship.
Article 6, bans protesters from carrying weapons, explosives, fireworks or any other equipment which might endanger people, institutions or possessions; it also bans wearing masks for the purpose of committing the aforementioned acts.
This law is directed against the Muslim Brotherhood and the trade unions since it could also be used to prohibit strikes or the organisation of strikes.
Article 7 prohibits ‘calling for or stalling production’. It also prohibits blocking roads.
The Protest Law requires that organisers of any public assembly – be it a protest, march or general meeting – submit a written notice to the nearest police station with their plans at least three working days in advance.
If the public assembly concerns elections, then the notice is reduced to 24 hours. The notice must include the location of the assembly, its route (in case of a march), the time it would begin and end, the demands it raises and the slogans it will use.
It should also include the names of the assembly’s organisers, their area of residence and contact information.
Article 10 of the draft law allows the Minister of Interior or the concerned security director to cancel, postpone or change the route of a protest should either acquire ‘serious information or evidence that the assembly would threaten national peace and security’.
The assembly’s organisers should be notified of such a decision at least 24 hours before the assembly’s set date. Organisers can appeal the decision at the first degree special court.
The law allows security forces ‘dressed in uniform’ to disperse a public assembly if any of the participants commit a crime punishable by law or a ‘non-peaceful act’.
Security forces are also allowed to arrest the perpetrators.
While dispersing the public assembly, security forces should begin by calling on participants to leave the assembly and provide them with safe exits.
Should the participants fail to comply, security forces can begin using water cannons, batons and teargas.
If the aforementioned prove fruitless, security forces have the right to ‘gradual use of force’ where they can fire warning shots or sound bombs, use rubber bullets and then use birdshot.
If the protesters resort to firearms, Article 13 entitles security forces to respond in proportionate measures according to their right to ‘legitimate self-defence’.
According to the new law, the Minister of Interior should allocate a ‘buffer zone’ where all general assemblies are banned.
Such buffer zones are to exist outside ‘vital institutions’ such as presidential headquarters, legislative entities, governmental entities, judicial entities, foreign missions and embassies, police stations, military institutions, archaeological sites, museums and educational facilities.
Governors are to allocate areas where citizens are free to hold ‘peaceful’ general assemblies without prior notice.
The law punishes those who possess weapons during a general assembly by imprisonment for seven-years and/or an EGP 100,000 to 300,000 fine.
The violation of this law would be punished by a two-to-five-year imprisonment and/or fines between EGP 50,000 and 200,000, while holding a protest without prior notification would be fined by EGP 10,000 to 30,000.
In addition, any citizen who receives money or benefits from illegal protests will be punished by imprisonment and a fine between EGP 100,000 and 200,000; the punishment is also valid for those inciting this crime even if the crime is never committed.
Prior to being passed the draft Protest Law received wide criticism from a number of domestic and international human rights organisations.
Human Rights Watch said the draft law gives the police ‘carte blanche’ to ban protests in Egypt, while Amnesty International warned the draft law would ‘pave the way for further bloodshed’.
A group of 17 domestic civil society organisations said that the draft law aims to normalise the state of emergency and turn it into a permanent state.
They point out that the law is even more repressive than the previous version which the now-dissolved Shura Council tried to pass when ousted President Mohamed Mursi was in power.
The draft law proposed during Mursi’s year in power prevented the Ministry of Interior from cancelling protests without resorting to the judiciary.
Last month Amnesty International had warned the law would ‘arbitrarily restrict peaceful assembly’ and give security forces the green light to use excessive and lethal force.
‘The law treats peaceful protesters like criminals and grants security forces additional powers to crush them,’ said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Amnesty stated that international law obliges Egypt to uphold the right to freedom of assembly and prohibits the use of lethal force except when it’s the only alternative to endangering life or experiencing serious injury.
In its statement, the watchdog organisation highlighted that United Nations standards urge security forces to avoid the use of force or minimise it even when dispersing unlawful assemblies which are non-violent.
It added that the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials only allows security forces to use firearms in cases of ‘self-defence or defence of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury’, even when dealing with violent protests.
Amnesty International also stated that the draft law creates more restrictions on freedom of assembly than the earlier protest law proposed when Mursi was in power.
The draft Protest Law, gives the police ‘carte blanche’ to ban protests in Egypt, according to Human Rights Watch.
The international human rights watchdog organisation said in a statement that the draft law could ‘severely restrict’ political parties’ and non-governmental organisations’ freedom of assembly.
‘This draft law would effectively mandate the police to ban all protests outright and to use force to disperse ongoing protests,’ said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
It described the draft law as just a ‘revision’ of the draft Protest Law discussed by the now dissolved Shura Council when ousted President Mohamed Mursi was in power.
‘One of the few rights protections in the 2012 constitution was a ban on security agents appearing at private meetings,’ Whitson said.
‘This law would reverse that, and truly strangle what’s left of independent political life in Egypt.’
The Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP) also criticised the draft law, describing it as a ‘dangerous setback from the democratic path gained since the 25 January 2011 revolution and its second wave on 30 June 2013.’
The ESDP added that the new draft law issues unprecedented punishments for protesters to scare them away from exercising their rights.