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As 2013 Dies, the Face of Popular Protest in Egypt Is Changing Once More

It's gone from a weapon of the people, to a weapon of the state.

Pro Morsi protesters in Cairo. Photo by Tom Dale

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 Spring 2011, Hosni Mubarak was overthrown when hundreds of thousands poured into the streets demanding change. In Spring 2012, the indolent SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) Military government sped up their transition of power after immense pressure from the streets. In Summer 2013, Egypt’s first democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi, was forced out of office and into a cell when huge numbers gave the Army reason enough to remove him from power.

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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 predicts will “pave the way to bloodshed”. Article 7 of the Protest 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 USD for ill-defined transgressions. It's an irony not lost on many that a government which is only in power as a result of demonstrations has passed an anti-demonstration law.

In Egypt, the dynamics of popular protest changed after the massive 30th of June demos that led to Morsi’s removal via coup on 3rd of July. Nathan J Brown, a professor at George Washington University, elaborates: “What is unusual… is the way that 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 the 30th of June. Indeed, whatever happened on the 30th of June… 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 state and specifically the de facto leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, were able to use their 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 the 26th of July, 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 nationwide in support. Previous governments had attempted similar calls of support, but the number that answered al-Sisi's was unprecedented.

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Any major demonstrations of dissent that followed have been dominated by the Pro Muslim Brotherhood "Anti-Coup Alliance", who have effectively been demonised as “terrorists”. They have been easily, and brutally, put down without any risk of sparking a national backlash. Any group opposed to both the Army and the Brotherhood has been outnumbered and drowned out by a dichotomised discourse that doesn't provide space for a "third choice" that is neither Brotherhood nor Army.

General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi meeting with senior EU diplomat Baroness Ashton. Image (via)

After approximately 1,000 pro-Morsi protesters were killed between the 14th and 16th of August by security forces, a state of emergency and curfew was put in place. Unlike previous attempts at imposing a curfew, which were largely ignored, the following three months of curfew was largely adhered to. One of the noisiest areas, downtown Cairo, became a ghost town in the evenings, all the shops shut with only the headlights of the odd car breaking curfew.

As part of enforcing the curfew, Army APCs and tanks were positioned strategically around the city, with Tahrir Square especially well guarded. Little in the way of opposition was voiced in response to the increased security presence, which was widely interpreted as a necessary evil. After years of it being an arena for public dissent, the government seemed to have reclaimed Egypt's public space. 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.

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When details of the law were exposed, it was met by a deluge of outrage and disapproval across the societal spectrum. Salafists, the April 6th Youth Movement, establishment political figures, rights groups, the youth revolutionary block and even the Tamarod group – one of the Army’s main grassroots cheerleaders – have publicly decried it. It seemed that the army had overplayed their hand and overestimated their 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,” says Deena Mahmoud, a spokesperson for the Anti-Coup Alliance. “[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, so even Tamarod aren’t really allowed to speak. People both with him and against him are not allowed to speak.”

Despite the overwhelming 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 High Representative and the UN Secretary-General to voice their concerns about both it and the events that immediately followed its implementation.

A protest by the Third Way of the Revolution Front

On the 26th of November, the day the anti-demonstration law went into effect, a protest was planned outside the Shura Council in downtown Cairo. Those participating were peaceful and relatively small in number, some 150 people; amassed in opposition to a long-contentious aspect of the judiciary – namely the trying of civilians within 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, beating and arresting any protesters who couldn’t get away fast enough.

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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 men and women being harassed by plain-clothes policemen, despite Article 11 of the law clearly stating: “Security forces in official uniform should disperse protests, meetings or marches…” Some 27 people sat in jail as a direct result, including high-profile activists like Ahmed Abdurahman, Alaa Abd El-Fattah, Ahmed Douma and Ahmed Maher. With regards to those last three, official warrants for arrest were issued for them after the demonstration. Their charges 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 the other four remain in detention: Alaa and Abdurahman for the events by the Shura Council; Douma and Maher for events outside Abdeen. Now 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 Abd El-Fattah (having already 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 taken and Alaa arrested.

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As the ire of the activist community and "Third Square" groups (supporters of neither the Brotherhood nor the Military) increases against the incumbent powers, 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 affiliate with neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor the Army are making their voices heard. In Alexandria, seven female minors were recently sent to juvenile detention while another 14 women were handed 11-year sentences (longer than many policemen convicting of killing civilians receive). Their heinous crime? Making a human chain and holding balloons as a message of sympathy to Mohamed Morsi. In the aftermath of disgust shown towards 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 back up the state and the status quo.

Follow Adam on Twitter: @aporamsey

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WATCH - Egypt After Morsi

Egyptian Police Are Accusing Students of Being Islamists and Killing Them

Egypt's Mohamed Mahmoud Anniversary Protests Were Pretty Surreal