Egypt on Sunday enacted tough new restrictions on public demonstrations that free-speech advocates said will suppress protests against the current military-imposed government.
Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour, imposed the 25-article law by decree, acting under legislative powers he was given when the military ousted President Mohammed Morsi in July after three days of protests in which millions had flooded the streets to demand Morsi’s resignation – the second time in just two years that a president had been forced from office after massive street protests.
The new law seemed designed to make sure that that won’t happen a third time. It requires that groups apply to the police for permission to demonstrate two weeks in advance. That application must spell out what the demonstration is protesting, where it will be held, how long it will last and what goal the demonstration’s organizers are hoping to achieve. Any gathering of more than 10 people without police permission is illegal under the law.
The Interior Ministry and police can cancel or move a protest and while the law says only appropriate force can be used to break up an illegal protest, it says the security forces have the right to defend themselves. But what constitutes self-defense is not defined, and recent history suggests that forces will interpret that broadly. On Aug. 14, security forces attacked sit-ins in support of Morsi, killing roughly 1,100 people.
The law also allows provincial governors to establish protest-free zones around government buildings. Violators face as much as 10 years in prison and fines of up to 300,000 Egyptian pounds or about $42,857.
The government, as much as its opponents, has deployed protests as a means to bring change in Egypt. In July, days after millions demonstrated seeking Morsi’s ouster, Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi called Egyptians back to the streets to show their support of the government. The military again summoned Egyptians to demonstrations Oct. 6, to support the military and mark the 40th anniversary of the 1973 war with Israel that eventually led to Egypt regaining control of the Sinai Peninsula.
With a law now requiring government approval for a demonstration, opponents feared that only government supporters would be able to take to the streets.
“This must be a joke. We used to blame Morsi for passing laws without holding public discussions. What is the difference now? At least Morsi used to pretend that he held public discussions but they don’t even try,” said Ahmed Maher, the founder of the 6th of April movement, which helped spur the 2011 uprising in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square that led to the fall of longtime President Hosni Mubarak.
It was the latest move to control dissent that advocates here says shows that the new government is becoming increasingly repressive. On Thursday, the Egyptian cabinet gave police permission to enter university campuses, a historic birthplace of national uprisings and where Morsi supporters have protested, without prior permission if facilities or students are under threat. Last week, a court sentenced 12 pro-Morsi students to 17 years in prison for attacking administrative office at Cairo’s al Azhar University.
The interim government is also considering anti-graffiti laws and a new anti-terrorism law.
Human Rights Watch called the law "an important indicator of the extent to which the new government is going to allow for political space in Egypt".
Maher said his organization will test the new law soon and go ahead with a planned protest on Monday at the country’s legislative building to object to a draft constitution that would allow some civilians to be prosecuted in military courts.
“We will see what will they do with us. Let them implement the law. We will defy the law,” Maher said. “This law is against the Muslim Brotherhood and anyone who opens his mouth.”