January 28, 2014 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1061

Egyptians Deeply Divided Over Law Restricting Public Protests

January 28, 2014 | By N. Shamni*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1061


On November 24, 2013, Egyptian Interim President 'Adly Mansour approved a bill for a protest law submitted to him about a month previously by the government. The new law sets restrictions for demonstrations and public gatherings, as well as protocols for security forces for dealing with demonstrations.

The new protest law allows nonviolent demonstrations and requires citizens to announce all demonstrations, gatherings, and marches three days in advance by filing an official request including the details and purpose of the demonstration as well as information about the organizers. The law allows the interior minister, or the security officer in charge on scene, to cancel a demonstration or change a march's route if there is any concern for security or public welfare, and also requires that he set up a permanent committee for every governorate that will be tasked with regulating and securing demonstrations and dealing with demonstrations that become violent. Demonstrating and gathering in houses of worship is banned, as are carrying weapons or explosives and wearing masks or otherwise concealing identity during protests with the aim of committing a crime. In addition, the law sets out methods that security forces may use for the "gradual dispersal" of violent protests, including water cannon, tear gas, clubs, smoke grenades, rubber bullets and even live ammunition; defines "disrupting traffic" as an offense allowing security forces to use crowd dispersal measures, and lists the penalties for those who break the law, which range from fines to seven years in prison.[1]

The protest law was approved at the end of the three-month state of emergency declared in August 2013 following the Muslim Brotherhood's (MB) and its supporters' violent clashes with security forces. The clashes erupted as a result of that month's dispersal of the MB sit-ins at Rabaa Al-Adawiya mosque and Al-Nahda Square in Cairo, which resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths.[2] In effect, the state of emergency in the country since then had prevented the MB and its supporters from holding mass anti-regime demonstrations and from continuing to protest against the July 2013 ouster of president Muhammad Mursi. The new protest law may be aimed at anchoring these restrictions in law.

The approval of the protest law in November 2013 was accompanied by harsh criticism in Egypt that developed into to protests and violent demonstrations. It is notable that criticism came not only from the MB and other Islamic movements opposing the current regime, but also from civil youth movements that supported the regime following the June 30 revolution, such as Tamarrud and the April 6 movement; the latter are claiming that the law impinges on freedom of expression and is counter to democratic values.[3]

The law was criticized outside Egypt as well. The U.S. State Department claimed that the law would harm Egypt's democratic process;[4] U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for amending the law and giving citizens more freedom of expression;[5] and the E.U. stated that the law would not lead to real and ongoing security for the Egyptian people.[6]

The Egyptian government announced that it was determined to implement the law and authorized the security forces to implement it, while claiming that it respected both freedom of expression and the right to protest within the confines of this law, which is meant to prevent freedom from becoming anarchy.[7]

Recently, three political activists, two of them officials in the April 6 movement, were sentenced under the new law to three years in prison for organizing an unauthorized demonstration and additional related charges; this sparked additional criticism inside and outside the country. Additionally, as a result of the law, the April 6 movement, once a supporter of the regime and the road map, has become a regime opponent.

This report will review the debate in Egypt on the protest law, as reflected in Egyptian press.

Protests Against The Law; Government: The Law's Opponents Are Terrorists

Two days after the law was approved, on November 26, there were reports of its implementation; dozens of civil youth movement members protesting against the law were arrested at an unauthorized demonstration outside the Shura Council building in central Cairo.[8] One of them was April 6 movement founder Ahmed Maher.[9] Several young women who were arrested were reportedly left by police on a desert road late at night, where their lives were at risk.[10] Also, political activist Alaa 'Abd Al-Fattah was arrested on charges of inciting to unauthorized protest and attacking security forces.[11]

Following these punitive measures by security forces, the Tamarrud movement demanded that Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim be fired,[12] and 15 members of the constitution drafting committee suspended their membership.[13] There was also harsh criticism of cases of excessive use of force against pro-MB student protests, which were continuing despite the law. The MB issued a communiqué condemning the law and calling on their activists in the universities to protest against it.[14]

In response to the criticism, Interior Minister Ibrahim clarified that the law would not prevent citizens from protesting peacefully and expressing their opinion.[15] At the same time, however, he claimed that the law's opponents were terrorist elements taking advantage of the anarchy for their own aims.[16] The government announced that it respected freedom of expression and the right to protest, but added that it was determined to implement the law, giving security forces its full backing.[17]

April 6 Movement Withdraws Its Support For The Regime, Calls For Protests

As noted, following the passage of the protest law, the April 6 movement, which had been a regime supporter since Mursi's ouster, transitioned to the opposition. It even announced recently that it opposed the new draft constitution, which is up for referendum January 14-15, because it allows civilians to be tried in military tribunals. The movement also harshly condemned the Egyptian government's decision to declare the MB a terrorist organization.[18]

On December 22, 2013, April 6 movement officials Ahmed Maher and Mohammed 'Adel, and political activist Ahmed Douma, were sentenced under the new law to three years in prison and fined 50,000 Egyptian lira on charges of attacking police officers and holding an unauthorized protest outside the Shura Council building.[19] The movement protested the sentence.

The movement also released a communiqué titled "The Death of the Road Map," claiming that the regime was acting in violation of the road map that it set following Mursi's ouster and that it is returning to the path of the MB and president Hosni Mubarak. It announced its intention to demonstrate on January 25, 2014, the third anniversary of the January 25 revolution. The communiqué noted "that the sentence was unjust, politically motivated, and relied on a dictatorial law that restricts the right to demonstrate – [a right thanks to which] the current regime came to power [in the first place]... It is a return to the oppressive practices of the Mubarak state under military sponsorship, and we will oppose it by opposing the constitution and will gather to demonstrate on January 25, with the aim of compelling the regime to return to [acting] lawfully or to depart."[20]

April 6 movement protests against the sentence (source:, December 22, 2013)

April 6 movement statement on "The Death of the Road Map" (source:, January 3, 2014)

Along with calls for anti-regime demonstrations on the third anniversary of the January 25 revolution, the movement called for rejecting the draft constitution in the upcoming referendum. On its Facebook page, it launched an event page calling for protests throughout Egypt on January 25, "for freedom, jobs, and social justice."[21] It also criticized the government, the presidency, the military, and security forces, accusing them of oppression. Numerous posts on the page featured the slogan "down with the military regime!" Movement members called for protest marches against the three activists' sentence, and it was reported that the three had launched a hunger strike to protest their mistreatment in prison.[22]

April 6 movement Facebook event: Calls for demonstrations on January 25, 2014 (source:

The three activists' sentence was also criticized outside Egypt. Catherine Ashton, the E.U.'s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, expressed concern and said that the protest law seems to restrict freedom of expression and assembly, and added that she hoped that the sentence would be overturned on appeal.[23] In its condemnation of the sentence, the U.S. State Department noted that the U.S. is "deeply concerned about the worsening climate for freedom of assembly and peaceful expression in Egypt" and that "the implementation of Egypt's restrictive demonstrations law has led to an increase in arrests, detentions, and charges against opposition figures, human rights activists, and peaceful demonstrators." The statement further says that "the sentences issued December 22 do not contribute to an open electoral environment or a transition process" and "therefore should be reviewed." The State Department called on the Egyptian government "to fulfill its commitment to implement an inclusive democratic transition."[24]

Al-Ahram Supports Law, Says Illegal Protestors Must Be Dealt With Aggressively, Similar Laws In U.S., France Are Harsher

The debate surrounding the protest law also found expression in the Egyptian press. A prominent defender of the law was the daily Al-Ahram, which was the central government publication in Egypt until Mubarak's ouster. After the fall of the Mursi regime on July 3, 2013, the daily stood by the new regime and the military establishment. It expressed its support for the protest law in several editorials even before its approval, while attacking its critics.[25]

In an article published on November 28, 2013, several days after the approval of the law, Al-Ahram editor 'Abd Al-Nasser Salama claimed that the protest laws in other countries were stricter than the Egyptian one. He wrote: "It should be mentioned that the protest law in its current form has already been stripped of every important component during the weeks in which its approval was delayed. Despite this, it faced violent and unjustified opposition, not only in Egypt but also from the U.S., which allows itself to interfere in the affairs of countries crumbling from within. To rid ourselves of the exaggeration and interference [of foreign critics], I would be happy to pass a law identical to the American protest law. Then we would see the responses here and there [in the U.S.], since [the American] law completely forbids protests near government buildings, requires organizers to indicate the expected maximum number of protestors, and does not permit to remain at the protest site overnight for any reason. Furthermore, protests must disperse by 6:00 pm... In addition, the law there defines as a felony any entry by protestors into areas the police determines are off limits, or any unrestrained behavior that disrupts or paralyzes the operation of government ministries or any other official activity.

"In France the law even permits to use force against rioters with weapons approved by the penal code, [including] the use of live fire, subject to an explicit order by the relevant authority on scene... Generally, all protest laws in the world grant the state a right to deny or approve a protest [request] without allowing the organizers to appeal the decision in court, while here the law does grant this right to the organizers. Furthermore, all [protest] laws in the world completely forbid sit-ins or staying at the protest location overnight, [while] the law recently approved here left that part out. In all countries in the world there is a total ban on covering your face during a protest, but we added strange language [to this clause] that states: wearing a mask [is forbidden] if it is for the purpose of committing a crime. [It seems that this language] was meant to enable the perpetrator to avoid punishment...

"We must understand that the protest against the law was merely a rehearsal for planned future protests against everything: against the constitution when work on it is complete, against the outcome of the [constitutional] referendum, against the method of parliamentary elections and [later] the results of those elections, whatever they may be, and against the presidential elections and [specific] candidates. This is a matter that must be addressed as harshly as possible... Criticizing the law and disrespecting the state are in themselves severe threats to the future of the homeland and the citizenry... Due to this ongoing situation, we are about to create new generations of wayward people who do not attribute any importance to the values of the country and to national honor... Current talk about cancelling the protest law is absurd. Calls to protest against it have become a rebellion that requires general preemptive and deterrent moves [to prevent such] actions, now and in the future. Those who approved the law must take responsibility to defend it, and to confront all attempts to harm it, since they are clearly ashamed and perhaps even helpless to deal with the situation, which encourages the others to continue trespassing and spreading rumors and chaos..."[26]

Columnist Supporting The Law: This Will Turn Egypt Into A Lawful State

'Adel Sanhouri, a columnist for the daily Al-Yawm Al-Sabi', expressed support for the law, stating that "this is the real start of the building of a lawful state, from the street to state institutions. All the countries whose democracy, human rights, and engrained freedoms we praise have a law regarding peaceful protests, gatherings and marches. Some of them implement laws that are harsher in certain ways than the newly-formed Egyptian protest law...

"Many laws around the world only permit protests after they are approved and a license to organize them is issued, so why is there such a fuss [here] about requiring the interior ministry's consent to organize a protest or gathering? This law is not an Egyptian innovation. It is a civilized [move] adopted by countries that strive to complete building their institutions and enforcing their authority by laws instead of oppression. The purpose of the protest law is to restore the rule of law, and Egypt needs it during the tough times it is going through.

"The law is not ideal, but it is mostly positive. The interior ministry and the state certainly don't wish to stand in the way of the Egyptians' desire to [hold] peaceful protests. The conditions [to hold a protest] will not be a sword hanging above the heads of the organizers, since [organizing protests] is one of the most important achievements of the two popular revolutions, of January 25 and June 30. The protest law puts the state and government to the first true test in terms of the country's ability to deter [lawbreakers] and eliminate chaos... The law is not counter to freedom of opinion or public expression and is not aimed at peaceful protests or rallies. At base level, it is aimed [against] the groups of terrorism, chaos, and killing and against movements that break the law."[27]

Columnists Opposing The Law: Regime Taking On Excessive Powers

Ahmed 'Attiya, a columnist for the Muslim Brotherhood website, criticized the law, claiming that it grants excessive powers to the regime and prevents any protest: "Whoever prepared the published protest law should have called it the 'no protest law' or the 'protest ban and prevention [law],' because this law prevents [protests] instead of regulating them. This is not a ban carried out gently or in good taste, but rather [a ban] using all the weapons at the disposal of the oppressive regime, which punishes anyone who considers protesting or demanding some right. No one has any rights. [The leaders] of the coup want to talk to Egyptians in the same language that Pharaoh used thousands of years ago... This is clear from the articles of this miserable law. Thus, for example, Article 11 states: The interior ministry may prevent a protest if, prior to its start, security forces receive intelligence that the organizers or participants intend to carry out a crime. This means that the law judges [people] for intent... and permits the relevant authority to decide whether to allow or prevent [a protest], and to set the number of participants...

"The [most] inconceivable thing is Article 22, which orders jail time and a fine... to anyone who offers or accepts money or any kind of reward to organize public assemblies or protests, or for mediating them. How would [the authorities] know whether protestors received a reward? Does anyone trust a ministry like the interior ministry to be reliable and not level baseless accusations, as it is doing now and did back in the days of ousted [President Mubarak]? The [even] stranger thing is that this article also determines that 'anyone who incites to a crime will receive the same penalty, even if [the crime itself] did not occur.' How can you prove incitement if a crime did not occur? This means that the legislator wanted to provide the interior ministry with the thuggish tool of accusing [people] of incitement without a crime being committed, thus enabling [the ministry] to accuse whoever it wants."[28]

Mahmoud Khalil, a columnist for the daily Al-Watan, claimed that the law harms the entire Egyptian people and not just the MB, and expresses the regime's distrust of the citizens: "In my estimation, the reason for the passing of the protest law has nothing to do with MB protests... This is simply a law directed at the Egyptian people, by means of which the legislator is trying to prepare the bride, Egypt, for its big night with the coveted groom – the next president...

"The protest law's language, as I read it, simply means that the interim regime decided to view the Egyptians as a nation of terrorists whose can't be trusted to move an inch [unsupervised]. Even if [Egyptians] participate in a marriage procession, the law obliges them to inform the local police station and receive its consent. The decision to approve [this] protest law is stupid – and this is the least I can say about it – and expresses shallow thinking which will go down in history."[29]

Protest law gags the people (source: Al-Ahram, Egypt, October 26, 2013)

*N. Shamni is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 25, 2013. The full text of the law in Arabic is available on

[3] Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 26, 2013.

[4] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), November 26, 2013.

[5] Al-Dustour Al-Asli (Egypt), November 28, 2013.

[6] Al-Dustour Al-Asli (Egypt), December 1, 2013.

[7] Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 28, 2013.

[8] Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 27, 2013.

[9] Al-Wafd (Egypt), December 1, 2013.

[10] Al-Watan (Egypt), November 27, 2013.

[11] Al-Watan (Egypt), November 29, 2013.

[12] Al-Watan (Egypt), November 27, 2013.

[13], November 27, 2013.

[14], November 26, 2013.

[15] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), November 26, 2013.

[16] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), November 29, 2013.

[17] Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 28, 2013.

[18] Al-Watan (Egypt), December 22, 2013; Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), December 27, 2013.

[19], December 22, 2013.

[20], December 22, 2013.


[22] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), December 26, 2013.

[23], December 23, 2013.

[24], December 23, 2013.

[25] Al-Ahram (Egypt), October 27, 2013.

[26] Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 28, 2013.

[27] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), November 26, 2013.

[28], November 27, 2013.

[29] Al-Watan (Egypt), November 26, 2013.

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