The draft Protest Law, awaiting the president’s ratification to pass, gives the police “carte blanche” to ban protests in Egypt, according to Human Rights Watch.
The international human rights watchdog organisation said in a statement released on Wednesday that the draft law could “severely restrict” political parties’ and non-governmental organisations’ freedom of assembly.
“This draft law would effectively mandate the police to ban all protests outright and to use force to disperse ongoing protests,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch described the draft law as a “revision” of the draft Protest Law discussed by the now dissolved Shura Council when ousted President Mohamed Morsi was in power.
While the new draft restricts the police’s use of force in dispersing protests and requires that the force used is proportionate to the threat faced, Human Rights Watch pointed out that it also gives the police the right to use lethal force in “legitimate self-defence”. The organisation said that, according to Egyptian law’s “broad” definition of legitimate self-defence, the police are granted the ability to use lethal force at their discretion even if not strictly necessary to protect life.
The organisation feared Article 6 of the bill could lead to collective punishment of protesters “if a single protester throws a stone”. The article bans protesters from carrying any weapons, tools or materials which could subject people or institutions to harm or danger. It also bans protesters from wearing masks, which Human Rights Watch described as “discrimination” against Muslim women who cover their faces.
“One of the few rights protections in the 2012 constitution was a ban on security agents appearing at private meetings,” Whitson said. “This law would reverse that, and truly strangle what’s left of independent political life in Egypt.”
Article 8 of the bill obliges organisers of marches, protests, and public meetings to submit written notifications regarding their events to the nearest police station at least seven days ahead. Article 11 allows the Minister of Interior or the concerned security director to cancel the event should they receive “serious intelligence” suggesting that the organisers intend on breaching the law.
Human Rights Watch said, in its current form, the law fails to meet Egypt’s obligations to respect freedom of assembly under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“The final law will be an important indicator of the extent to which the new government is going to allow for political space in Egypt,” Whitson said.
The interim cabinet, presided over by Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi, passed the law on 10 October and referred it to the interim President, who is yet to ratify it. After receiving wide criticism, the cabinet announced last week it will receive suggestions regarding the draft Protest Law for a week of “societal dialogue”.
The Revolutionary Front held a protest at Talaat Harb Square in downtown Cairo on Saturday evening to denounce the draft law.