Egypt considers law that could sharply limit protests, months after coup against Morsi

A draft law that would strictly regulate street protests in Egypt is drawing fierce criticism from rights groups and exposing fresh cracks in the broad coalition that backed the military coup against President Mohamed Morsi in July.

The legislation, drafted this month by the military-appointed interim government, grants authorities the power to cancel demonstrations or quickly escalate to the use of lethal force for vague reasons, including threats to the public order.

Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Bahaa al-Din said in a statement on his official Facebook page Monday that the cabinet would probably delay the legislation because of mounting opposition. Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi said in a television interview Sunday that the government is open to considering amendments to the bill.

But if signed into law by interim President Adly Mansour, the current version would impose a blanket ban on public sit-ins and require protesters to seek advance permission from the Interior Ministry to hold a demonstration. Violators would face harsh fines and up to three years in prison.

The provisions have made liberal activists and others wary of the intentions of a government that has unleashed a brutal campaign against Morsi’s associates in the Muslim Brotherhood, arresting thousands on spurious charges and reinstating emergency law along with a nightly military curfew.

A widening crackdown against pro-democracy activists and intellectuals is raising fears that the government and its military backers are angling to quash all dissent and restore the old authoritarian order. “It’s an attempt to bring back the police state,” said Ahmed Maher, co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, which played a key role in the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak. In September, a group of military supporters filed charges of espionage against Maher. But he says he is no longer under investigation.

Mubarak had used a sweeping emergency law and his vast security apparatus to thwart demonstrations, harass and detain dissidents, and try political activists in special courts.

Government officials say the new protest legislation would be different. “It is a law to regulate protests, not to ban them,” Interior Ministry spokesman Hani Abdel Latif said in defense of the bill.

Security forces have accused Morsi supporters of storing weapons at sit-ins and firing on police officers. Since the Islamist leader’s ouster, Egypt has also seen a rise in armed attacks against military and police targets.

“The police will not go back to the time before the 25th of January,” Latif said, referring to the first day of protests against the Mubarak regime in 2011. “But it’s just like anywhere else in the world. And we will implement the law.”

But the move to curb the lively street protests that have become a defining feature of Egypt’s post-uprising political landscape has roused even the government’s staunchest supporters, interrupting the near-universal backing it has enjoyed among non-Islamists.

A spokesman for Tamarod, or “Rebel” — the group that spearheaded the anti-Morsi rallies in June — called the draft law “unjust” in a statement posted on its Facebook page last week. Before then, Tamarod had yet to seriously waver in its loyalty to the army-installed government.

Former leftist presidential candidate and military supporter Hamdeen Sabahi said in a statement Monday that the bill would “bring back the security state.” And the Salafist Nour party, which lent the military Islamist credentials by backing the coup against Morsi, also condemned the measure last week.

“Very soon, the opposition will not be only Islamist,” said Ziad Akl, an analyst at the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “The government will be up against a generally upset segment of the population, a sophisticated set of protesters who will no doubt begin to
join anti-government demonstrations.”

The Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated Anti-Coup Alliance have mobilized supporters to rally in Cairo and elsewhere nearly every week since the violent dispersal of two pro-Morsi sit-ins in the capital in August. But so far, they have failed to significantly widen their base of support.

“This is a law to eliminate protests — to suffocate you and to tie your hands behind your back,” said 49-year-old Nash’at al-Moghrabi, a retired military officer who was participating in an anti-coup protest in Cairo’s Giza suburb last week.

The London-based rights group Amnesty International, which slammed the draft law as “paving the way for further bloodshed,” said authorities will probably use it to ban any protests in support of Morsi or the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Whoever is behind this law is not in touch with the Egyptian people after all that has happened,” said Hisham Kassem, a longtime rights activist and independent publisher in Egypt.

“If it is passed, it will be ignored and the people will protest regardless,” he said of the measure. “The people will not recognize it, nor will they respect it.”

Sharaf al-Hourani contributed to this report.

Erin Cunningham is an Egypt-based correspondent for The Post. She previously covered conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan for the Christian Science Monitor, GlobalPost and The National.
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