The Supreme Constitutional Court struck down Article 10 of Egypt’s protest law in a decision on December 3, calling the clause unconstitutional and effectively transferring authority over the authorization of demonstrations from the Interior Ministry to the court alone.
However, the ruling leaves other clauses of the law intact, quelling expectations that less restrictive legislation may have come to pass.
Here is a run down of the ruling’s legal details and the protest law articles that were challenged before the court.
The Supreme Constitutional Court’s Saturday decision settled two cases. In the first, the petitioner contested Articles 8 and 10 of the protest law, which are concerned with the means by which a person or group requests permission to stage a demonstration. The second case challenged Articles 7 and 19, which pertain to the acts that are prohibited during protest and their corresponding penalties.
The court based its decision to nullify Article 10 on the idea that “the Constitution was careful to impose sufficient restrictions on the legislative and executive authorities to protect public rights and liberties, principal of which is the right to assembly and peaceful protest, so that neither would invade that space protected by rights and freedom and prevent these rights from being exercised in an effective manner.”
The court further ruled that notification is the only acceptable method by which petitioners can be required to secure the right to demonstrate, striking down other requirements, such as official permission or license.
However, the court rejected the challenges to Article 8, which provides further clarity as to what constitutes notification. Article 8 stipulates that individuals or groups planning to organize a demonstration, a public assembly or a precession must notify the police station in the neighborhood where the protest is to be held, either in person or through an individual authorized to act as a notary. This notification must include a wide range of details regarding the planned demonstration, including its date, time and duration, in addition to slogans that will be used, the reason for assembly and the names, addresses, employment and means of contact for all the petitioners.
In its decision to uphold Article 8, the court wrote, “This article regulates the procedures for notification in a way that is judged best to achieve the interest of the group wishing to organize the protest.”
The court also upheld Article 7, which criminalizes a number of protest acts regardless of whether the demonstration has been approved. These include obstructing or advocating for the obstruction of production, disabling public utilities, disrupting the public interests, causing citizens harm or exposing them to danger, preventing others from exercising their rights or from working, impeding the course of justice, occupying roads, blocking traffic and damaging public or private property.
Anyone who commits one of the acts listed under Article 7 would face a mandatory minimum prison term of two years that can extend to a maximum of five years, in addition to a fine of LE50,000-100,000, per Article 17, which the Supreme Constitutional Court also upheld.
In its ruling, the court explained the rationale for its decision by arguing that the protest acts under the banner of Article 7 disrupt the necessary balance between rights and freedoms, which renders the article constitutional. Similarly, the court wrote that Article 19, lays down “penalties that are commensurate with the gravity and enormity of Article 7 without excess or negligence.”
Will the court’s ruling facilitate the release of prisoners who stand accused of acts criminalized by the protest law?
Saturday’s ruling will not necessarily have an effect on those currently imprisoned.
Essam al-Islambouly, one of the lawyers who submitted the challenge to the protest law, says that those who have been imprisoned for protesting due to having failed to secure the Interior Ministry’s approval can file a demand to the general prosecutor to drop the penalty. However, if a person has been penalized for additional charges, whether related to the protest law or not, they will not benefit from this ruling.
Mohamed al-Baqer, a lawyer who has handled several cases of people charged with violating the protest law, told the privately-owned Al-Shorouk newspaper on December 3 that “the penalties for protesters imprisoned under the protest law usually include other broader charges, such as disturbing the peace, disrupting public interests or damaging private and public property, which makes it difficult to challenge or repeal the ruling.”
Will the Supreme Constitutional Court’s ruling allow for protests — and more generally street politics — to return to Egypt’s sphere of political action?
Khaled Abdel Hameed, a member of the Freedom for the Brave campaign, doesn’t think that the ruling will affect political action. “Demonstrations did not decline because of the law,” he contends, “but because of the unprecedented violence and repression used by the state, where demonstrations were managed using live ammunition.”
Abdel Hameed argued that the specificity of the law will have no bearing on future government action, as the state will find a way to manipulate the ruling and suppress demonstrations. “People are actually being arrested for simply saying and even thinking things and not just for protesting,” he added, contending that the state’s current policy already extends beyond the bounds of the law.
However, beyond the government’s intention to rein in its suppression of opposition movements or disregard any judicial curtailment, some wonder whether the court ruling can be used by Egypt’s democratic movement.
“The Egyptian street is looking for politics and politicians today. Will the politicians be capable of reintroducing themselves and of sending a message that lets the people believe that they are capable of expressing their views? What if we call for a protest in front of Parliament on January 10 against the decisions of November 3, after notifying the Inter Ministry?” asks Akram Ismail, a leader in the Bread and Freedom party, referring to the government’s decision to liberate the exchange rate on November 3 and introduce a host of other austerity measures. “I expect that broad sectors of society are waiting for this move.”
With an eye focused on capturing a marginal gain from the court ruling, Ismail says that democratic forces should reintroduce themselves as representing something that extends beyond the issues of political prisoners and civil society on which they have focused for the last three years.
Translated by Assmaa Naguib.