The thin line between freedom and chaos

30-11-2013 11:03 AM

Georgette Sadeq

With the new protest law in place, Egyptians are strongly reminded of…

It would be easy to say Egypt is again polarised, this time along a ‘rights and freedoms’ line. That is if it weren’t for the fact that a closer look reveals not polarisation—as in two groups almost equal in volume but diametrically opposed—but a wide rift between a sweeping mainstream majority and a small activist minority. 
The divide comes on the wings of the new protest law which went into effect last Sunday, issued by interim President Adly Mansour. Directly, activists were up in arms, damning the law for curtailing freedom of assembly and expression. The United States expressed concern over “the law that restricts demonstrations”, saying it agrees with groups that argue the law does not meet international standards and hampers the country’s move toward democracy. 
But the wide majority of Egyptians thought otherwise. In no ambiguous terms, they made their views known online and in the time-honoured word-of-mouth clamour.
Space for protest
Predictably, the government rushed to justify the law, saying it was necessary to ensure that demonstrations, which have wreaked havoc with Egypt since the January 2011 Revolution, should be peaceful and not disrupt public life. The law, a cabinet spokesman said, was the only way to attain the much-sought-after stability that has been lacking for the last three years. 
Egypt’s Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy was quick to retort that the US remarks were “clear intervention in an Egyptian local issue, unacceptable from any country”.
The activists criticised the law for requiring that the Interior Ministry should be notified three days beforehand of any protest, and for granting it authorisation to issue “a reasoned decision to prohibit or change the time, location or route” of a public meeting if there is evidence it would jeopardise security. But the organisers have the right to seek urgent court decisions on the matter, so the protest may not be delayed or cancelled. And the law also stipulates that various adequate public spaces should be designated for protest without prior notification, 
Already, Giza governorate has designated a spacious open area at the end of Faisal Road as a venue for public gatherings, processions, or peaceful protest without prior notification. The area can accommodate some 10,000 individuals, lies close to main thoroughfares, and is easily accessible by public transportation. It is also detached from residential or commercial areas, thus ensuring no disruption to the daily lives and activities of citizens.  Suez assigned a stadium for the purpose, and other Egyptian governorates are following in the same footsteps. 
Banning protest?
The heavy penalties for breaking the law, and the authorised use of rubber bullet or metal pellets by the police came under activist fire. Yet the law stipulates that protestors should be warned several times before water canons, batons, and tear gas are used to disperse them. Only if these measures don’t work and the protestors violently assault the security forces may warning shots be fired and rubber bullets then metal pellets used.
For an unofficial translation of the full text of the law:
“The law gives legal cover for suppression,” said Talaat Marzouq of the Salafi Nour party.
A joint statement issued on Friday by 19 Egyptian rights organisations said the law sought to criminalise all forms of peaceful assembly and gave the State free hand to disperse peaceful gatherings by force.
The activist and lawyer Gamal Eid said the goal of the law was to ban protests in the streets “a right which Egyptians have earned by their effort and blood”.
Tuesday and the days that followed saw the activists’ criticism taken to the new level of waging protest to challenge the government. The police, however, insisted on implementing the law. Scores of protestors were detained and prosecuted for disrupting public order, assaulting public servants on duty, and several were charged with carrying white weapons.
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No going back
The cabinet responded by declaring there was no going back on the new law. Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi said that the government firmly upheld the law. He said the law respects freedom of opinion and expression, but ensures that freedom does not turn into chaos. He warned that unless the country adhered to law and order it would fall into the grip of terrorism, retardation, and anarchy.  
Dr Beblawi refuted claims that there had been no need for the protest law and that the penalty code was sufficient to deal with demonstrations. He insisted the legal penalty code stipulated overly harsh penalties in case of protest, and that the protest law offered them better legal and physical protection. 
The Media Minister Durriya Sharafeddin said that the law was only passed after meticulous studies and wide deliberation, and that it compared favourably to international codes and to other protest laws in democratic countries, citing the US and France as examples. The comparison was also made, citing laws and police response to protest in the US, UK, France, and Spain.
Sick and tired of unrest
The wide majority of Egyptians went on cyberspace to applaud the new law. 
Even though Facebook and Twitter carried the vehement opinions of the activists who severely criticised the law and vowed to bring it down, it was all too obvious that those who favoured the law were so much vastly larger in number than those who opposed it. 
In five Facebook groups whose members make up some 9000 individuals, those who opposed the law made no more than 3 per cent. Those in favour of the law posted pictures of the police dealing with protestors all over the world: in the US, UK, Denmark, Turkey, and many others. 
“We’re sick and tired of the last three years of unrest, halted production, and loss of livelihood, all because of incessant demonstrations. We want to go back to having a State, public order, and rule of law.” 
Many comments claimed that the ‘activists’ were just a few hundreds who appeared not to care about the lives of simple folk. “We, the people, want a strong State, strong laws.”
Thirst for law and order
Obviously, there was a thirst for law and order. Egyptians reader comments on the topmost Egyptian news site almost unanimously hailed the government’s ‘strong’ stance. “That’s right,” applauded several bloggers, “Beblawi, don’t give in to those who call themselves activists.”
Another blogger who identified himself as Sam, wrote in English: 
“To Prime Minister: YES and YES. This is how to manage the situation. To all kids who think they are the ‘youth of the revolution’, I have lived in Canada for more than 10 years now. If you did in Canada what you are doing in Egypt you will be in jail the same day and will find NO ONE to support you. Stop this childish behaviour and think of your country.”
Another comment by someone who signed as “Egypt” said: “Today Egypt has moved from being a puppet State to a sovereign State.”
Out of a total 67 comments, only four were against the protest law or the government’s decision to stick to it.
Several bloggers scoffed at remarks made by activists that the law should be applied not to the revolutionary activist protests which are normally peaceful, but to the MB protestors who are always violent and more often than not armed. The bloggers reiterated that this was selective application of the law, and would strip it of justice. They told the activists: “Shame on you! And you claim to defend freedom?” The activists were blamed for being out to place obstacles in the path of Egypt’s march towards a stable, democratic State.
The Islamists, predictably, opened fire against the new law and continued with their violent protests, for the first time in the same camp as the civil-minded activists. 
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“Conceited and arrogant” goes both ways
As the police applied the law against non-notified protests and dispersed the protestors, the activists waged a scathing criticism to the cabinet’s firm refusal to go back on the law, and said the cabinet was “conceited and arrogant”, but these claims were met with equally vehement counter-criticism by the public. Out of 56 comments on only three supported the activists; all others blatantly accused them of themselves being conceited and arrogant, and insisted they did not represent Egyptians in their wide majority. Worse, the bloggers accused the activists of outright lies and of being incited or even paid by Egypt’s ‘enemies’ to ensure that Egypt would never attain stability.
Despite the demonstrations against the law, several entities obviously decided to abide by it. The Egyptian Pharmacist Syndicate notified the Interior Ministry of its intention to hold a protest march on 10 December from its headquarters in Downtown Cairo to the Ministry of Health, less than a kilometre away on the same street. The march is to demand that pharmacists who own pharmacies should not be banned from working with the government. 
On Wednesday, a group of activists who wished to hold a protest in Talaat Harb Square to call for the release of the detainees who had been caught the previous day when they demonstrated against the protest law, notified the Interior Ministry and held their protest on time. The ministry, for its part, pledged to offer protection to the demonstrators and ensure traffic fluidity during the protest. However, another group of activists who wished to stage a march from Talaat Harb to the Shura Council, non-notified, created chaos on the scene.
Right on time
Watani decided to sound people on the street on how they saw the protest law.
Shaker Muftah, a specialist in criminal psychiatry, made a remark that any positive move in Egypt these days is met with wide criticism. “I have my doubts about the many who pretend to be patriots but who appear to have their own agendas,” Dr Muftah said. “It’s not only them that are suffering, the police and military are also losing their lives on account of the unending violence, yet the Interior Ministry, as I see it, is too lenient with the demonstrators. The new law has come right on time. We cannot let the country drift into worse violence.
“Only yesterday 14 female students were handed 11-year prison sentences for acts of violence and destruction, blocking roads and carrying white weapons during an early morning demonstration in Alexandria. Activists are up in arms against the harsh sentence, but they never appear to mind the gross crimes committed by these women or the Islamists who put them on the front lines and incited them to do so.”
Mariam Fikry Fouad, a feminist, believes the new law is necessary to protect the country from chaos. “The law does not ban protest, it just regulates it,” she said. “I see nothing wrong with that. I live in Giza on Faisal Road where we have been terrorised into staying at home and forbidding our daughters from going out at night because of the constant Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations that have plagued our lives with insane violence.”
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Excellent idea
As a feminist, Ms Fouad deplores the fact that the Islamists have been notorious for using their women as human shields and sacrificing them on the front lines. “That’s what happened with the 14 Alexandria women,” she says. “These women became ‘demonstration addicts’, but the main culprits are those who indoctrinated them into doing so.”
For taxi driver Farid Amin, a young man in his twenties, stability and security come first. “We hear that in democratic countries there are laws regulating demonstration,” he said. “Why should it be so wrong for us to have one here? TV news carried footage from several countries of protests being dispersed. I didn’t see it was any different than here. So what’s the whole point?”
Law student Shaimaa Said, however, was not happy about the law, and even less so about the government’s insistence it would not change it. “The law needs amendment,” she said. “Why should any protestor be an outlaw for masking his or her face? That’s discriminative and unfair. Besides, the places designated for demonstration are remote, as though the government wished to banish the protestors where no one can hear their voices. Why didn’t they designate places like Tahrir or Talaat Harb Square which are down town?”
Sayed Fahmy, a 57-year-old waiter at a sidewalk café in a populist district in Cairo, deplored the demonstrations and the havoc they wreaked with the locals’ lives. “It’s been some three years now that I have constantly feared for my children on the streets because of the upheaval caused by the violent demonstrations. The idea of designating a place for protest is an excellent one.”
And for Sherif Wagdy, a teacher in his thirties, it was ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ for the Interior Ministry. “If they do not disperse the protesters, they would defeat the law. If they disperse them, the protestors cry: ‘Oh look how abominably we have been treated! Police brutality!’” But he believes the government did the right thing by upholding the law; it may lose on the short term but Egypt is sure to win on the long term.”
Watani International
30 November 2013
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