For close to three years, Egyptians have been protesting and occupying public spaces. Almost every Friday, some group, somewhere, would be demonstrating—and it really made a difference. In the spring of 2011, Hosni Mubarak was overthrown when hundreds of thousands poured into the streets demanding change. A year later, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was forced out of office and into a cell when massive protests gave the military reason enough to remove him from power.
But in November, the military-backed interim government passed an anti-demonstration law that Human Rights Watch said was “in violation of international standards” and Amnesty predicted would “pave the way to bloodshed.” Article seven of the law especially stands out due to its vague and wide-reaching parameters regarding “violations of general security [or] public order.” Critics fear this will lead to punitive arrests, jail terms of up to five years for protesters, and fines of up to $14,500 for ill-defined transgressions.
It's an irony not lost on many that a government that's only in power as a result of demonstrations has passed a law restricting the right to public assembly. The authorities in Egypt are in an odd situation where they unseated an elected leader essentially via coup, but with the support of massive protests that kicked off on July 30.
"Key state actors—not only General al-Sisi and the military high command but also the previously disgraced security apparatus—have been able to position themselves on the winning side since June 30," said Nathan J. Brown, a professor of political science at George Washington University who specializes in the Middle East. “It has been clear that the military and security apparatus are no longer following the crowd, they are leading it.”
In the aftermath of removing a president who had alienated a large proportion of Egyptians, the country's de facto leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was able to use the government's high approval ratings to appropriate public protest and demonstration for their own gain. No longer was public protest against the state, it was now a tool being wielded by the state. This was made emphatically clear on July 26, when al-Sisi called for a “mandate to deal with terrorism.” The call was answered by the hundreds of thousands who flocked to the streets across the nation in support. (Previous governments had attempted similar state-sponsored protests, but the number of people who came out in response to al-Sisi's speech was unprecedented.)
The major demonstrations of dissent that followed have been dominated by the pro–Muslim Brotherhood "anti-coup alliance," which has effectively been demonized as terrorists. They have been brutally put down without sparking a national backlash. And voices opposed to both the military government and the Brotherhood has been outnumbered and drowned out by a dichotomized discourse that doesn't provide space for a third choice.
After approximately 1,000 pro-Morsi protesters were killed in mid-August by security forces, the government instituted a state of emergency and put the country under a curfew. Downtown Cairo became a ghost town in the evenings, all its shops shuttered, with only the headlights of the odd car breaking curfew. As part of enforcing the state of emergency, Army APCs and tanks were positioned strategically around the city, with Tahrir Square—which by now has become a traditional protest site—being especially well guarded. Little in the way of opposition was voiced in response to this increased security presence, which was widely interpreted as a necessary evil. Not long after the military-backed interim government’s popular approval peaked (during the nationalistic October War celebration), a draft of the new protest law was approved by the cabinet and placed under the review of interim President Adly Mansour.
When details of the law were revealed, it was met by a deluge of outrage and disapproval across the ideological spectrum. Salafists, the April 6 Youth Movement, establishment political figures, human rights groups, the youth revolutionary block, and even the Tamarod group—one of the military's main grassroots cheerleaders—have publicly decried it. It seemed that the military had overplayed its hand and overestimated its support.
"Other people were looking after their own interests [before], but after this law, it’s affecting their interests too and violating everyone’s rights. It’s amazing because what Sisi did has actually united people,” said Deena Mahmoud, a spokesperson for the Anti-Coup Alliance. “[Al-Sisi] has decided to determine the will of the people, even the ones who are with him, to close their mouths and to decide alone... People both with him and against him are not allowed to speak.”
Despite this criticism, the interim president went on to pass the law. The details of the final draft and its heavy-handed application proved worrying enough to prompt the EU and the UN to voice their concerns.
On November 26, the day the anti-demonstration law went into effect, a protest was planned outside the Shura Council in downtown Cairo. Some 150 people gathered peacefully in opposition to a long-contentious aspect of the judicial system—namely, the trying of civilians in military courts. Within 30 minutes, riot police appeared on the opposite side of the street. A policeman on a loudspeaker gave the protesters five minutes to disperse. As soon as the time was up, they opened fire with water cannons before charging into the fray, beating and arresting any protesters who couldn’t get away fast enough.
Ironically, while arresting several dozen of the protesters, the police accidentally broke a stipulation of the new law they were so fervently trying to uphold. Video footage emerged of people being harassed by plainclothes policemen, despite article 11 of the law clearly stating, “Security forces in official uniform [emphasis added] should disperse protests, meetings or marches.” Twenty-seven people sat in jail as a result of the crackdown on the protest, including high-profile activists Ahmed Abdurahman, Alaa Abd El-Fattah, Ahmed Douma, and Ahmed Maher. Charges against them included incitement to violence, rallying and “thuggery,” resisting authorities, and violating the new protest law. Twenty-three of those 27 have now been released on bail, but those four remain in detention; the prosecutor-general has referred Alaa and 24 other activists to the criminal court for breaking the protest law.
On hearing of his warrant, Alaa (who has been detained under Mubarak, Tantawi, and Morsi) released a statement saying, “My ever-imminent arrest is now a running joke in Egypt.” It wasn't all that funny, though—he indicated his intention to turn himself in on Saturday at noon but was not given the chance. That Thursday, Alaa’s home was invaded by security services. He and his wife were beaten, their laptops were seized, and Alaa was placed in custody.
As the ire of the activist community and "Third Square" groups (who don't support the Brotherhood or the military) increases, so do incidences of articles smearing them as sexual deviants, or inhuman, as demonstrated by an article on Ahram Online entitled “Human Rights? What Human?” Nevertheless, as more cases of injustice crop up, more people who don't affiliate with either the Muslim Brotherhood or the military are making their voices heard. After a recent protest in Alexandria, seven girls were sent to juvenile detention while 14 women were handed 11-year sentences—a more severe punishment than many policemen convicting of killing civilians receive. Their heinous crime? Making a human chain and holding balloons to show sympathy with Mohamed Morsi. After public outrage at the verdict, the detainees had their sentences reduced to one—suspended—year.
After the first draft of the protest law, increasingly diverse factions of Egyptians are voicing concerns on matters of injustice, corruption and reform. They're looking towards a future where popular protest is used to demand change rather than support the state and the status quo.
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