The controversial bill for regulating the right to demonstrate
Two weeks ago, Watani International carried the headline “Egypt on riot mode”. In fact, Egypt has been, almost non-stop, on riot mode since the demonstrations that marked the beginning of the 18-day revolution which ended with former President Hosni Mubarak stepping down on 11 February 2011. Egyptians marked that date last week, as they did the anniversary of the two-year-old revolution, with further protests which more often than not turned violent as the protestors clashed with the security forces. More than 50 peoples lost their lives. This time round, however, the demonstrators were calling for President Mursi to leave, and an end to the Islamist rule which came on the wings of the revolution.
The government, for its part, has retaliated with a proposition for a law to regulate demonstrations, which the Egyptian street was quick to criticise for severely restricting the right to demonstrate, and which it quickly branded “the law for banning demonstrations”. But before going into the details of that law or how the activists or law experts see it, it is important to remind that demonstrations in Egypt are not only restricted to political protest; in many cases they involve rallies for certain demands by specific sectors of Egyptians who require job benefits, higher pay, or better work conditions. But then these do not frequently turn violent; but involve more service interruption or strikes.
Judge Mohamed Hamed al-Gamal, former head of the State Council, told Watani that the right to demonstrate is granted by the Constitution and is not subject to acceptance or refusal by the police or any security apparatus. They neither have the authority to set conditions allowing for demonstrations and marches nor can they determine their timing and route. The right to demonstrate cannot be subject to regulations and constraints. It is simply illogical, Judge Gamal says, to prohibit demonstrators from getting closer than the 500 metres to the presidential palace and government buildings which the bill cites. Isn’t it the main purpose of demonstrators to make their voices heard by the officials residing in these places?” Incriminating the shouting of contemptuous slogans or even insults is also unreasonable, because an angry crowd taking to the streets to protest against government policies cannot be expected to shout sedate words of praise.
Regulate or ban?
Judge Gamal condemns the Ministry of Interior’s constant claim of protecting national security to impose measures to hinder demonstrations. National security has become an elastic concept, he says, under which all actions are justifiable.
The new bill of demonstrations includes terms and conditions that were not even included in the Illegal Assembly law, issued in 1914 under the British occupation. Moreover, Judge Gamal says, the Shura (Consultative) Council—the upper house of Egypt’s parliament—currently responsible for drafting the new law, is illegitimate, and is passing legislation only on a temporary basis until a Council of Representatives—the lower house of parliament—is elected. Just as the current constitution is null and void, he insists, this bill is unlawful because its real purpose is not to regulate protests but to restrict them.
As to the response of Egypt’s revolutionist youth to the bill, Judge Gamal reminds that the will of the people was never restrained by laws. On the contrary, the people of Egypt will continue to take to the streets, protesting against whoever they do not wish to see in power. The provisions of this law simply do not match the principles and demands of the revolution, he says.
Rifaat al-Said, head of the leftist Tagammu party and member of the National Salvation Front, asserts that the right to demonstrate is a basic human right that must be ensured to all the people to express their opinion. It was granted to Egyptians since the time when the first Egyptian constitution was issued in 1923. And even the government’s insistence that demonstrations should be unarmed, Dr Said says, is no guarantee for non-violence.
Failed to accomplish
Mustafa Kamel al-Sayed, Professor of Political Science and former Dean of Cairo University’s Faculty of Economics and Political Sciences, acknowledges that in modern societies, it is compulsory to notify security forces before demonstrations take place. This is only possible in politically-stable countries that have walked a long way on the road of democracy and that respect the right of their citizens to hold peaceful demonstrations. The security authorities must also be informed beforehand about the demonstrators’ demands, the routes the demonstration would take, and the time of the protest. Demonstrations and rallies, he says, are never denied unless it is obvious that the protestors intend to resort to violence and that the people’s lives and property are at stake.
Dr Sayed points out that, before attempting to implement whatever is happening in the West in our country, Egypt should be able to attain some political stability. It is imperative to note that turmoil and protest still abound in Egypt because we have failed to accomplish any of the objectives of the January 2011 Revolution. An enormous crisis of confidence exists between the government and the people; it does not help that the police has behaved disgracefully ever since. Only after reaching a state of stability and restoring the missing trust will the people accept a law regulating the right to demonstrate.
17 February 2013