Nearly three years after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt is at a critical crossroads: Will it move toward democratization or regress into authoritarianism?
With a vote on a new constitution slated for the next couple of months, and promises of parliamentary and presidential elections by summer, Egypt’s military-backed interim government claims it has a road map to correct the country’s deviation from the goals of the 2011 revolution. But the passage last week of a law effectively quashing the right to public protest suggests the opposite.
According to the new law promulgated by the interim president, Adly Mansour, the government must be notified of all gatherings of more than 10 people. Demonstrations overnight or at places of worship are banned. Moreover, the Interior Ministry, which controls the country’s police force, has full discretion to reject applications; given the fact that police brutality is a frequent complaint of protesters, this arrangement poses a serious conflict of interest. Few Egyptians trust the ministry to approve requests fairly and without politicized prejudices. And the tedious paperwork demanded by the law means that the ministry can drag out the approval process for months.
As Egypt braces for its second attempt at passing a constitution via a public referendum, the timing of the protest law was no coincidence: It was designed to quell anticipated dissent by civil society and youth groups who have been largely excluded from the constitution-drafting process, as they were in 2012.
While the law’s proponents point to similar legislation in Western democracies regulating the time, manner and place of public protests, they overlook the alternative channels available in those societies for expressing dissent. A free press and the ability to criticize government policies without risk of arrest under trumped-up charges are crucial government oversight mechanisms.
No such alternatives exist in Egypt. Under Article 204 of the Egyptian Constitution, recently upheld by the constitutional drafting committee and set to be voted on as part of the public referendum, civilians can be tried in military courts under certain conditions. In a country in which military-owned businesses comprise up to an estimated 40 percent of the Egyptian economy, this effectively could cause the military justice system to displace the civilian justice system. Civilians involved in a dispute with a military officer or an employee of a military-owned gas station, for example, could be tried in a military court.
As under the leadership of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the regime of former President Mohamed Morsi, decisions under the military-backed government are made in closed-door meetings. And despite invitations for feedback, the government has consistently ignored public input.
Take, for example, the No Military Trials for Civilians campaign. Seeking to raise awareness of the threat to universal due process posed by Article 204, the organization drafted a petition signed by public figures and NGOs, issued press releases, and used social media. But their recommendations to the Constitutional Assembly were blithely disregarded.
As a last resort, the group organized a demonstration in central Cairo. Last week, some 200 people gathered in front of the Shura Council, protesting both Article 204 and the passage of the protest law. The police responded with tear gas and water cannons before arresting dozens of people, many of whom remain in custody. These harsh tactics, reminiscent of the Mubarak era, are being witnessed in other parts of the country as well: In Alexandria, a group of women have been sentenced to up to 11 years in prison for participating in a protest. More arrests are to be expected as Egyptians struggle to retain their last avenue for disagreement.
When governments make civic engagement futile, protests become all the more necessary. The Egyptian government may be seeking nonviolent outlets for dissent, but an illegitimate anti-protest decree will not achieve that goal. Its efforts would be better spent building channels for fruitful, and transparent, public discussion. And when feedback is rejected, the government bears the burden of explaining its reasoning to the public it serves.
It should come as no surprise that in Egypt, protests remain the only avenue for expressing disapproval with the government. Absent meaningful alternatives for shaping the country’s future, like an independent press, government transparency and public hearings that incorporate citizen feedback, people will continue taking to the streets to build democracy.
Sahar Aziz is an associate professor at Texas A&M University School of Law and president of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association. Shahira Abouelleil is a member of the No Military Trials for Civilians campaign.