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TIMEP Brief: Protest and Freedom of Assembly in Egypt

Egypt’s Protest Law has been invoked against peaceful assemblies and vague charges such as belonging to a banned group or disturbing public order are used to punish anyone publicly assembling.

  • Egypt’s Protest Law has been invoked against peaceful assemblies despite judicial and legislative attempts to liberalize its Article 10, which delineates the government’s power to prevent protests.
  • Arrests under the Protest Law account for only 12 percent of protesters referred to Egyptian courts. The state also employs a panoply of vague charges, including belonging to a banned group and disturbing public order, to punish anyone publicly (and at times privately) assembling.
  • Violence used to disperse protests has been lesser reported as protests have abated under restrictions, but remains a recurring element of political and social protests in Egypt. The government’s overall crackdown on protests indicates a structural commitment to not only limiting, but effectively prohibiting free assembly and protest.

Overall Situation:
In November 2013, Egypt’s interim government adopted a Protest Law that required detailed notification of protests for such gatherings to be deemed legal. Between the law’s adoption and September 20161, the Daftar Ahwal project documented the issuance of about 37,000 arrest warrants for activists and protesters. During this time period, a total of 6,382 individuals were sentenced and fines totaling roughly 128 million Egyptian pounds were meted out as punishment. Opposition to these practices has been led by human rights organizations, activists, and a few political parties, who have called for the release of political detainees arrested while protesting, the dismissal of all charges against them, and the repeal of the Protest Law.

In December 2016, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court struck down Article 10 of the law, which gave the interior minister the right to ban protests in violation of Article 73 of Egypt’s 2014 Constitution granting the right to demonstrate peacefully. The law was summarily amended to allow all protests with proper authorization. Nevertheless, spontaneous protests in 2017 with political or social demands, such as the Tiran and Sanafir protests and the Nubian homeland protest, have been forcefully dispersed and deemed threats to public order and national security. Protesters attempting to legally notify the government of their intended protests are often denied the ability to present their paperwork, allowing police to arrest anyone protesting “without a permit.” Even when paperwork has been accepted, the government has moved protests to inconvenient locations on short notice and closed public transit hubs to diminish the turnout and excitement of the protest.

Under former President Hosni Mubarak, the right to protest was severely curtailed by restrictive legislations on protesting and public assembly as well as a state of emergency in place from 1981 until 2012 (and which was resumed across Egypt earlier this year). These laws allowed the government to restrict gatherings and break up protests, often violently.

Egypt’s Cabinet passed the Protest Law in 2013, which effectively bans public protests or gatherings of more than 10 people without prior government approval (requiring three days’ advance notification), and stipulates jail time or heavy fines for those in violation. In a similar vein, excessive police violence has often been used to break up protests. The killing of Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, shot by security forces during a peaceful demonstration, drew condemnation from around the world, but the incident was far from isolated. Despite restrictions and government retaliation, people continue to demonstrate in Egypt, though at a lesser rate. According to data from DemoMeter, the number of protests reported in the first quarter of 2017 was merely a quarter of what it was two years earlier. Labor protests have been reported relatively regularly over the course of 2016 and 2017; a spate of arrests of union leaders in September 2017 (reportedly for “incitement to protest”) after massive strikes at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company were designed to discourage protest.

Article 73 of the 2014 Constitution affirmed the freedom of assembly, stating that “citizens shall have the right to organize public meetings, marches, demonstrations, and all forms of peaceful protests, without carrying arms of any kind, by serving a notification as regulated by Law.” The article further states that peaceful and private assembly is “guaranteed without need for prior notification” and that security forces “may not attend, monitor, or eavesdrop on such meetings.” Article 73 clearly distinguishes between protests and assembly, with public meetings, marches, demonstrations, and all forms of peaceful protests requiring notification, but peaceful and private assembly not requiring such notification.

The dissonance between these legal precedents, coupled with the violence committed against citizens protesting, led the United Nations and various human rights organizations to criticize the Protest Law and on multiple occasions call for its repeal. Local and international organizations have characterized the law as repressive and restrictive, saying it prohibits citizens from practicing their constitutional right to assemble. Political figures including former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi and former Chairman of the Constitution Party Hala Shukrallah have called for pardoning and releasing protesters, a call echoed by multiple political groups in Egypt.

Government officials have defended the law by arguing that it is no different than laws governing protests in the United States. In a January 2015 interview, President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi insisted that there were “no restrictions” on freedom of expression in Egypt, and that Western standards shouldn’t apply to the country because of its security situation.

A Supreme Constitutional Court ruling against Article 10 of the Protest Law led Egypt’s parliament to pass an amendment to the law in April 2017, stripping the Ministry of the Interior of its authority to ban a demonstration outright, though protest may be restricted if the ministry believes the demonstration represents a threat to the security of the state. Other legally challenged articles of the Protest Law were allowed to stand, including Article 7, which criminalizes certain types of protests regardless of whether citizens received approval to gather; Article 8, which outlines the process for demonstrators notifying police of a planned protest; and Article 19, which describes the penalties for violating Article 7.

The state continues to limit the location and scope of protests through the new authority delegated to the judiciary, and the Ministry of the Interior continues to play an important role in restricting public demonstrations. Preemptive arrests of protest leaders has become standard operating procedure for state security agencies, as has detention, often without charges, of anyone deemed to be likely to protest. Examples include the June 2017 protests against the parliament’s passage of the controversial Tiran and Sanafir islands agreement. The state responded by utilizing force against civilians and arresting individuals involved with the demonstrations. Similarly, in September 2017, 24 Nubians were arrested in Aswan by security forces for marching to call attention to the constitutional right to return to their ancestral homeland. The protesters were interrogated without lawyers and initially placed in detainment for four days, but a court in Aswan prolonged their imprisonment.

Analysis and Areas of Concern:
Despite government statements to the contrary, Egyptians are not currently legally or physically free to exercise their right to protest or peaceably assemble, and there has been no material improvement in the freedom of Egyptians to embrace their constitutional right to assembly since late 2013. The implementation of a new state of emergency and the propensity of authorities to use laws to justify continued violent responses to protests, despite declaring the repeal of one article of the Protest Law as a triumph for human rights, indicates the will of the government to prohibit any free public demonstration.

The Egyptian government has justified this prohibition through continual efforts to present peaceful protests as threats to national security, and deal with the citizens involved as adversaries. This discourse has created a securitized atmosphere that substantiates the government’s claims that peaceful expression of grievances must be dealt with through security response. Rather than achieve stability, such an extreme constriction of public space and criminalization of protesters will only erode the social contract between citizen and state, to destabilizing effect. Without significant reform of legal frameworks, political intent, and security sector response, Egypt risks an environment in which protests, while they may be fewer for the time being, are more spontaneous and chaotic, or where grievances are expressed through more violent means.

TIMEP Coverage:

  • In August 2016, TIMEP’s Research Associate Brad Youngblood and intern Noor Hamdi wrote an article that highlighted the Egyptian government’s use of laws other than the Protest Law to punish protesters and how this process would undermine proposed amendments to the Protest Law.
  • In March 2017, TIMEP published a Q&A with several of its Nonresident Fellows on the Bread Protests that included analysis of the protests’ drivers and implications.
  • In August 2017, TIMEP released a special briefing on the Tiran and Sanafir islands agreement between Saudi Arabia and Egypt that covered the different waves of national protests surrounding the issue and the state reaction to the varying size and intensity of those protests.

1 In large part due to constraints on civil society and reporting, no comprehensive data has been released on arrests or convictions under the Protest Law since 2016. Additionally, as the Protest Law was amended in early 2017, protesters have been tried under different portions of it or under different laws, making accurate counts and comparison between periods difficult.