Seventeen local NGOs forming the “Front to Defend Freedoms” released Monday a unified vision of amendments that need to be introduced to the Protest Law, following an initiative by the government that promised to reconsider the law, which is viewed as oppressive by human rights’ defenders.
They are trying to pressure the House of Representatives for legislative reform to occur.
However, it was strongly emphasised that the legislative improvement would not contribute to a freer environment for freedom of expression in Egypt, unless there is real political will to reinforce the principles of the 2014 Constitution.
This came in a press conference held at Al-Haqanya Law Centre, managed by rights lawyer Mohamed Abdel Aziz, and attended by Georges Ishaak, member of the state-affiliated National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), Karim Abdul Rady, lawyer at the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), and Mahmoud Osman, lawyer at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE).
“This controversial law has left many victims,” said Abdel Aziz. “Hundreds were sentenced to prison, remanded, or victims of violent clashes with security forces. We not only demand amendments to this law, but also its retroactive reinforcement, meaning the release of those detained because of it,” he added.
The NCHR had previously communicated to the government its objections to the current law, including meeting with former interim prime minister Hazem El-Beblawi. “It was all in vain, despite the promises,” commented Ishaak.
Now that the government has renewed such promises, the NCHR along with human rights NGOs have outlined their demands for the new law, with the purpose of aligning with constitutional article 73, which guarantees freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly, and with international standards that organise the right to protest.
“According to international human rights standards, citizens have the right to assemble in public spaces to demand their rights, workers have the right to strike, and protesters should not carry any types of weapons,” Ishaak said.
More importantly, he shed light on the right to publicly protest without having to obtain prior authorisation from security authorities, as states the current Protest Law. “They should only notify them of the protest, but if there are objections, it is the Ministry of Interior that should go to court to obtain a verdict annulling the event,” he explained.
Human rights NGOs further demanded all articles containing prison penalties to be extracted from the law on grounds that these crimes are already penalised by the Penal Code.
“[In 2013], the government ignored social dialogue and remarks of the rights community and issued the law on its own. If there is real political will this time, those who have views against freedom of expression should not work on the amendments to the Protest Law,” said Abdul Rady.
For his part, Osman, who defends the young musicians group Atfal Shawarea (Street Children), warned that amendments to the Protest Law alone could not contribute to freedom of expression, as there are “always other laws that oppress this freedom in the Penal Code, and more”.
Providing an example of the case of the band, Osman said they are facing charges of “inciting [people] to protest”, explaining that this charge is “not even in the Protest Law”.
The four members finally called on the government to show good will by addressing core issues of freedom of expression and ensuring law enforcement in a manner that achieves a balance between fighting terrorism and protecting freedoms.