Haunted by the Toppling of Former Regimes by Popular Protest, Successive Governments See Demonstrations as a Threat


Reports submitted by independent rights organizations are one of the most significant sources of information for the UN Human Rights Council as it reviews and discusses the rights record of member states. The reports of independent organizations, which are later put together by the UN into one cumulative report, may address the general status of human rights or focus on specific rights depending on the expertise and area of focus of the group submitting the report.
The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights submitted a joint report to the UN Human Rights Council on the right of peaceful assembly in Egypt, in preparation for Egypt’s Universal Periodic Review before the council, scheduled for November 5. The report covers the most important developments in the right of peaceful assembly over the last four years, up to March 2014, the deadline for submission of reports to the Human Rights Council, which reviews, assesses and collates the reports for publication in a general report shortly before the UPR begins.
The ten-page report examines Egypt’s fulfillment of its international obligations under international conventions it has ratified or commitments made in its first UPR in 2010. The report notes that Egypt is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which upholds guarantees for the right of peaceful assembly, as well as a signatory to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which guarantees freedom of assembly. Egypt also committed before the UN to implement a set of recommendations on the right of protest, as well as to require the police force to exercise restraint except in cases of direct threat and to adopt a code of conduct for law-enforcement officials and basic principles on the use of force and firearms. Nevertheless, the last few years have demonstrated the vast gap between these obligations and the reality of the right of peaceful assembly in Egypt, both in statutory law and in practice.
The report notes that peaceful demonstrations played a pivotal role in the political upheaval of recent years. In fact, successive governments since 2011 have all been brought to power through citizens exercising their right to peaceful assembly. But despite the shifting faces and names of governing officials, they have all maintained a hostile view of the right to protest—one of the most frequently violated rights by all these governments. All of them have realized that protest helped to bring down their predecessors and, in turn, constitute a threat to themselves. They have thus sought vigorously to deny it and have met demonstrations with violence.
The report also notes that while the 2014 constitution upholds the right of peaceful assembly, it requires notification prior to the organization of public assemblies, which contravenes the right and denies legal recognition of spontaneous assemblies. In addition, like previous constitutions, the current charter provides for the exercise of the right of assembly “as regulated by law,” which makes the provision much more malleable and liable to curtailment through statutory law.
The report criticizes Law 107/2013 on the regulation of the right of public assemblies, processions, and peaceful demonstrations, which reflects the state’s hostility to the right to peaceful assembly, restricts the right, and makes holding a demonstration a crime. The report condemns the authorities’ failure to amend or reconsider the law despite recommendations from Egyptian and international parties and the broad criticisms of the law.
The report pinpoints five major problems with the protest law and looks in detail at their consequences for the exercise of the right. Most significantly, the law renders the idea of notification meaningless, making assemblies contingent on the lack of objection from the Interior Ministry—in effect, requiring a police permit for public assemblies. The law also gives the police free rein to use violence against protestors with few constraints if the assembly deviates from peacefulness, but it does not include a precise definition of what constitutes peacefulness and leaves this to the discretion of security forces. In addition, it permits the use of lethal shotgun fire by police and increases penalties for offenders, raising the cost of exercising this right to prison time and a fine of up to LE100,000. These penalties are applicable whether the procedural violation is coupled with crimes or acts of violence.
The report states that the period of 2010–14 has seen the most violations of the right of peaceful assembly since the establishment of the republic in 1952. From January 25 to February 3, 2011, at least 846 people were killed in public squares and in the environs of government buildings. Since then, the state has used excessive force to break up peaceful demonstrations, taking the lives of more than 2,000 people in incidents cited in the report. There has still been no accountability for extrajudicial killings and serious abuses by the state in the context of demonstrations.
The report also finds a strong connection between the performance of courts and other judicial authorities such as the public prosecution and violations of the right of peaceful assembly. These include long periods of pretrial detention, the harassment of demonstrators during questioning and while in custody, and the filing of baseless, trumped-up charges against demonstrators, including murder, even while the legal evidence implicates security forces.
Starting with the wave of opposition to the Mubarak regime in 2010, which increasingly protested the ongoing state of emergency and other authoritarian practices, and down to the present day, repressive practices have increased and arrests and charges against demonstrators have become more frequent. In addition to the crimes enumerated in the protest law, demonstrators also continue to be charged with assembly under Law 10/1914. While in some cases, prosecutors have released peaceful protestors after arrest, often they are detained pending investigation for varying periods of time. Moreover, military courts have tried and convicted civilians in some cases, such as the Maspero events in 2012 and in connection with a sit-in in Abbasiya near the Ministry of Defense, where demonstrators were protesting the policies of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.