Since the summer of 2013, following the military coup led by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the ruling regime in Egypt has managed to handcuff the public space, surround it with restrictions.

Amr Hamzawy
Amr Hamzawy is a senior fellow and the director of the Carnegie Middle East Program. His research and writings focus on governance in the Middle East and North Africa, social vulnerability, and the different roles of governments and civil societies in the region.
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This has been in a stark contrast to the period before the coup when Egyptians, during the popular uprising that took place on January, 25, 2011, were encouraged to engage actively in managing the country's affairs through peaceful means and ballot boxes. This period benefited  both civil society organisations and political parties.

Egypt now finds itself ruled by a military, security and intelligence junta.

Egypt's generals have constantly employed repressive tools to instill fear among the population in order to stifle free expression and peaceful opposition.

The military clique's goal here is to evacuate citizens from the public space, to eliminate the autonomy of civil society organisations and to marginalise political parties that are not controlled by the security and intelligence services. 

They have also continued to adapt different legislative and legal measures to crack down on opposition and isolate voices of dissent.

In this context, one specific law issued on November 24, 2013 by the interim President Adly Mansor is worth special attention. Making use of his temporary legislative competence, Mansor issued a law "organising the right to public meetings, processions and peaceful demonstrations".

This dreaded law, known locally as the "protest law", should be scrutinised because it provides the basic justification to usurp the freedom of a large number of Egyptian youths, students, workers, Muslim Brotherhood members as well as others.

It has also created a citizen diaspora, turning Egyptians into a chased community pushed outside of the public space and pursued by criminal state institutions that have tirelessly violated human rights and civil liberties.

The anti-protest law recognises in its eighth article the citizens' right to "organise a meeting, or conduct a procession or protest", but requires a notification written three days at minimum and 15 days at maximum in advance. This written notification should be directed to the police station located within the area of the activity in question.

Yet in its 10th article it effectively eliminates the citizens' rights of peaceful assembly and demonstration.

Article 10 gives the security services absolute power to cancel or postpone the demonstration, change the location, and modify the activity path based on "serious information or evidence" regarding the existence of threats against security and peace which the security services themselves provide.

This formulation is of a clear despotic nature as it makes the security services both the opponent and the judge, as well as unbinding their hands to abuses without any supervision, control or objective evaluation framework.

The security services' authority is only partially checked by allowing citizens to contest prevention and delaying decisions in front of the Urgent Matters Courts, which rarely rule against the security services.

In its 14th article, the law unleashes the authority of the security services, represented by the Minister of Interior, to coordinate with the governors, as local representatives of the president, to identify "secure spaces" before public institutions of all types - military, civilian, administrative and service - into which citizens are not allowed to go.

As a result of this stipulation, the security services have expanded their use of the term "secure spaces" to practically prevent citizens' peaceful demonstrations.

The law then provides a range of financial penalties and prison sentences for those who violate its rulings. Violations are defined, on the one hand, in relation to the involvement of citizens in the disturbance of public safety and public order, or in the blockage of roads and means of transportation or in the attack on lives and public and private property. 

On the other side, the law uses ill-defined terms to cast a wide web to prevent citizens from peaceful demonstration by criminalising their involvement in disrupting production sites, in obstructing the people, in preventing them from the exercise of their rights and businesses, or in preventing public institutions from fulfilling their mandate.

This second set of stipulated prohibitions de facto cancels freedom of assembly which is enshrined in the Egyptian Constitution of 2014 and in the international human rights conventions that successive Egyptian governments have ratified.

The anti-protest law then moves to end the provisions of fear and arbitrariness by granting the security services the authority to use batons and rubber - and non-rubber- bullets to disperse meetings, rallies and demonstrations that they themselves deem as violent. Here, too, the security services become the final arbiter with unchecked authorities.

The law does not include an adequate definition of what constitutes an act of violence in demonstrations, nor does it clearly specify what constitutes acts of violence. By legalising "dispersion by force", however, it unleashes police brutality towards citizens.

On the third anniversary of the January Revolution, on January, 25, 2014, 49 citizens were killed in demonstrations. Eighteen demonstrators were killed on the fourth anniversary of the revolution in 2015 - among those was Shaimaa al-Sabbagh who was shot by a police officer during a peaceful silent march.

Between 2013 and 2016, hundreds of Egyptians were arrested and taken to police custody following their participation, or attempted participation, in peaceful demonstrations.

Another example of authoritarian lawmaking in Egypt is the amendment of Article 78 of the Penal Code. On September, 21, 2014, the current president, using the interim legislative prerogatives which continued since his nomination in June 2014 to the election and convening of the legislature, the House of Representatives, at the beginning of 2016, amended Article 78 of the Penal Code.

This amendment practically criminalises the public and peaceful activity of nongovernmental organisations that Egypt's military junta has classified as enemies and conspirators.

The amended Article 78 voids the legal right of NGOs to receive foreign funding through legal channels, while upholding the provisions of transparency and accountability. It also disrupts their ability to cooperate with international NGOs.

Article 78 has a uniquely vague phrasing, amounting to criminalising matters and actions that are not well defined and to holding citizens and organisations responsible for intentions and promises.

The first paragraph reads as follows:

"She/he who requests for her/himself or for other, or who accepted or took, even though a medium, from a foreign country, or from those who are working for its benefit, or from a natural person or an entity, or from a local or foreign organisation, or any other organisation that is not affiliated with a foreign country and does not work in its favour, liquid or transferred money or hardware/machinery, or equipment or weapons or ammunition or the like or other things; or promised something of these matters, to intentionally commit any act that harms the national interest or jeopardises the independence of the country or its unity or the safety and security of its lands or to commit any acts of hostility against Egypt or to breach public peace and order- is penalised with life imprisonment and a fine of not less than five hundred thousand pounds and not more than what she/he was given or promised."

If it is normal to criminalise the receipt of funds, machinery, equipment, weapons or ammunition, from a natural person or an entity for the purpose of jeopardising the independence of the country or carrying out hostile acts. it falls outside the normal scope of the law for criminality to be based on vague formulations such as "committing an act that could harm the nation's interest,” or "breaching public peace and order”.

It is also out of the normal scope of the law for the amended article 78 to lack every objective and substantive definition for the things that one should not receive by involving formulations such as "or other things" in the text after pointing to receiving funds, weapons and ammunition and the like.

Moreover, the amended article 78 includes additional vague phrases that cast the web of criminalising public and peaceful activities of NGOs even wider. 

Article 78 of the Egyptian penalty code, in its amended version, is a clear enabler of the new authoritarianism. It allows the army generals to repress and penalise NGOs, especially those human rights organisations which have refused to turn a blind eye to the human rights violations that occurred between 2013 and 2016.

The clear-cut  differences between acts of terrorism and violence, which are rightfully classified as hostile acts, and the legitimate documentation of injustices and violations that Egypt's generals want to deny, are absent from the amended article.

The separating lines between criminal receipt of weapons and ammunition with the purpose of harming the country and its people, and, receiving computers and printers that are needed by human rights organisations to manage their activities are also absent.

The eradication of autonomous NGOs is the true objective of the new authoritarianism, and it complements the objective of evacuating citizens from the public space which is enshrined in the demonstration law.

This article was originally published in Al Jazeera.