The Nonsensical Distance in Egypt’s Protest Legislation

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Cairo – Walls. Walls. Walls. The geography of Cairo’s traffic has been gravely altered by the cement walls blocking streets to the Ministry of Interior, the cabinet and the parliament, all in close proximity, in addition to other facilities in central Cairo.

The walls were erected, sometimes repeatedly, to stop protesters from advancing following deadly clashes. Egypt’s different rulers since January 2011 have been showing growing interest in using cement to distance themselves from their angry citizens and bringing presumably easy solutions to the headache of street action.

Now this will be cemented in legislation. A new draft law will leave it up to provincial governors and the Ministry of Interior to decide the distance protesters should keep from state buildings. Anger should not be voiced to its cause.

This is not the worst part in a law drafted by the cabinet and the state council and currently awaiting the president’s ratification in the absence of a parliament. Leaks of the latest draft indicate that the notification was lowered from seven to three days in advance, and if the Ministry of Interior refuses, it’s the protesters who have to resort to the judiciary. The meaning of “notification” is diluted in the procedures stipulated in the following sentences. It should be replaced by “request” for accuracy, but so is the title and intent of the legislation: It’s not to regulate the act of protest, but to dilute it and strip it of its potential impact.

The draft law has surfaced regularly under consecutive regimes following Hosni Mubarak. Limiting protests is awkwardly but understandably on the top of the priority list of every government brought to power by mass demonstrations.

This cabinet has vowed to release the law before lifting the state of emergency. The presidency insists both are not related, but the timing and earlier government statements suggest otherwise. As with all things now, fingers always point to the Muslim Brotherhood and their protests. They are solely blamed for the ensuing violence without much attention to the circumstances of each demonstration and the response of the police and the neighborhood residents prior to the violent escalation. The detonating bombs and armed attacks on the army and the police, mainly in Sinai, produce a state of fear that has latched to the act of protest.

The result: More people are ready to accept such restrictive legislation, more than any time before when the state had consistently promoted a discourse of protests as generic disruption. Now there’s the added security need. The emergency law can only be replaced by the demonstration law, as if the perceived danger addressed by each is one and the same.

The heightened state of fear creates an acceptance for exceptional measures, whether to confront the Muslim Brotherhood or just any dissent. Now the populace supporting the military led regime repeatedly calls for a “stronger” government and the heavy hand of its security arm.

Does the law allow the police to use deadly force against protesters? The latest leaked draft details a gradual increase in the type of force in case of violations. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and other rights groups have noted the implied indiscriminate punishing of the group for any transgression committed by an individual participant. The scariest part is that aside from specifying the possession and the use of weapons as a crime, the draft mainly describes violations in vague terminology left for the interpretation and the discretion of the security forces, whose record in making such judgment is stained with blood.

As rights groups and other sane voices have noted, disruption and instability can’t be solely cured by security solutions, which usually provoke more violence rather than curb it. Consequent governments have been only interested in expressing their authority through the heavy hand of security – now more than ever – with little to no interest in the real problems.

On November 14, the state of lost rights and grievances in Egypt was reviewed at the UN committee for economic and social rights. The same day the emergency law ended with expectations of releasing the protest law – it’s been hours away from release since the start of the week. The irony of the timely coincidence will be lost on Egypt.

The physical distance the government wants to maintain around its buildings from the chants of its citizens should be a telling analogy of the policy gap separating rulers from their subjects’ aspirations. The presumed security of the nation can’t shoulder the burden of considering actual and sustainable solutions.

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