Cairo – Activists and political parties reacted angrily to a restrictive new “protest law” approved in Egypt this week, with several groups already calling for protests against it.
The legislation, which was signed on Sunday by the interim president, Adly Mansour, requires citizens to give at least three days’ notice before any public gathering of more than 10 people.
Rights groups have criticised the law since its first draft was introduced by the interior ministry in October, arguing that it would criminalise peaceful dissent.
On Monday police applied the law for the first time, firing tear gas to disperse a protest at Al-Azhar University, which has become a hotbed of political activity in recent months. Student supporters of the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi, had staged a protest in defiance of the law.
Ahmed Maher, a founder of the April 6 youth movement that helped lead protests against the longtime president, Hosni Mubarak three years ago, called the law “unjust”.
“It will be dropped like those that preceded it,” he said.
April 6 and other groups had already called for a protest on Tuesday outside the offices of the Shura Council, the upper house of parliament. The vigil is not about the protest law; rather, it was organised to protest against a controversial provision in Egypt’s draft constitution that would allow military trials for civilians. Nonetheless, it does not have permit, “so the vigil itself will challenge the protest law,” said Alaa Abdel Fattah, an Egyptian activist.
The Kefaya (“enough”) movement, a nearly decade-old activist group, described the protest law as “thuggery” by Egypt’s security state. “You have not learned your lesson,” it said on Facebook, addressing its message to the interim government. “The fear barrier [between people and the state] has been broken.”
‘Abuse of this law’
The government insists the law is necessary to regulate the daily protests that have taken place since Morsi was ousted by the army in July. Some have turned violent, and many have blocked major roads or paralysed entire neighbourhoods.
Protesters are required to submit the route their marches will follow, the names of the organisers, even the chants and slogans they plan to use. It covers all gatherings except those with a “non-political” purpose; politicians will even have to notify the interior ministry before holding campaign events next year during Egypt’s parliamentary and presidential elections.
The bill grants the interior ministry wide authority to block rallies that could “pose a serious threat to security or peace.” Blocking traffic is prohibited, a provision which effectively bans sit-ins.
Security forces, meanwhile, are given wide latitude to end protests: If even a single demonstrator is violent, police are authorised to use escalating levels of force, ranging from water cannons and tear gas to shotguns. Those practices have been commonplace for years, but rights groups say the law gives police impunity to continue them.
Ehab Badawy, a spokesman for the presidency, said organisers would have the right to seek speedy appeals from the judicial system.
Nader Bakkar, a spokesman for the Nour party, Egypt’s main salafi grouping, said members of his party would seek to change the law after a new parliament is elected early next year.
“We’re very worried about the abuse of this law. We’re not dealing with a state that has a good reputation for dealing with civilians, for dealing with political protests,” he said.
Other Egyptians, meanwhile, chose to lampoon the new law: The interior ministry said on Monday that it had received its first application, from two men who applied to hold a protest against the protest law.
The organisers, members of April 6 and the liberal Constitution Party, estimated the turnout for Sunday’s rally at a (comically exaggerated) 10 million people. Their proposed slogan? “Eat popcorn, and down with the protest law.”