A less theory-heavy version of this appeared in Vice on December 17th
For close to three years Egyptians employed protest and the occupation of public space to devastating effect. Almost every Friday, some group, somewhere, would be demonstrating.
In Spring 2011, Hosni Mubarak was overthrown when hundreds of thousands poured into the streets demanding change. In Spring 2012, the indolent SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) Military government sped up their transition of power after immense pressure from the streets. In Summer 2013, Egypt’s first democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi, was forced out of office and into a cell when huge numbers gave the Army reason enough to remove him from power.
Now, the military-backed interim government has passed an anti-demonstration law that Amnesty said would “pave the way to bloodshed” and Human Rights Watch said was “in violation of international standards”.
Article 7 of the Protest Law especially stands out due to its vague and wide reaching parameters regarding “violations of general security, public order or production…” which, as subjective terms, leaves room for punitive arrests, a jail term of up to 5 years and fines of up to $14,500 USD.
For the current government, which is only in power as a result of demonstrations, to pass an anti-demonstration law is an irony that is not lost on many.
According to Professor Charles Tripp author of, “The Power and the People: Paths of Resistance in the Middle East”, the occupation of a public space is, in and of itself, an act of resistance against the state and can be an incredible tool in challenging power. Unlike the clearer, often opulent, physical manifestations of government, public spaces aren’t usually under constant guard or omnipresent supervision. The openness of the squares, roundabouts, parks, streets, etc. often make these sites the ineluctable frontiers of confrontation.
As the name suggests, public space invites citizens into it’s areas, but by virtue of being conceived, planned and built by the state, it can also be seen as an extension of the state: what Tripp refers to as the “built environment of the state”.
By taking to public spaces and occupying them, the demonstrators change the areas’ function. No longer are they squares, roads, or parks (as labelled by the state), rather settings for dissent. The occupiers have already challenged the power of the state simply by refusing to use these spaces as designated by the Government.
The dissent is aired openly so that others, including the officials (but more importantly other members of the public), can see and hear what is happening. Word spreads. In economic vernacular, what was once ‘individual knowledge’ is now ‘mutual knowledge’. Where before you may not be sure as to what your fellow countryman and woman thought about the Government, now you and everyone knows, and everyone knows that you know.
The sociologist Max Weber writes of the existential imperative for states in “Politics as a Vocation” stating, “If the State is to exist, the dominated must obey the authority claimed by the powers that be”. So when crowds disrupt public space, it immediately gives lie to the image that governments the world over, but specifically in autocratic states, attempt to portray: The image of an ordered, obedient, content society that is reverential to power and state public institutions.
Within Egypt, public protest had long been against the state and its institutions. However, an intriguing change was experienced after the massive June 30th demonstrations that led to Morsi’s removal on July 3rd.
Nathan J Brown, Professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, elaborates, “What is unusual…is the way that key state actors–not only General al-Sisi and the military high command but also the previously disgraced security apparatus–have been able to position themselves on the winning side since June 30. Indeed, whatever happened on June 30…it has been clear since July 3 that the military and security apparatus are no longer following the crowd, they are leading it.”
In the aftermath of removing a president who had alienated a large proportion of Egyptians, the state and specifically the de facto leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, were able to use their high approval ratings and appropriate public protest and demonstration for their own sake.
No longer was public protest, ipso facto, against the state, it was now a tool being wielded by the state. This was nowhere made clearer than on July 26th when General al-Sisi called for a “mandate to deal with terrorism”. The call was answered by the hundreds of thousands who flocked to the streets nationwide in support. Previous governments had attempted similar calls of support, but the numbers al-Sisi garnered were unprecedented in this regard.
Any major demonstrations of dissent that followed were dominated by the Pro Muslim Brotherhood ‘Anti-Coup Alliance’, who had been effectively demonized as “terrorists”. They were easily, and brutally, put down without any risk of sparking a national backlash. Any group opposed to both the Army and the Brotherhood was outnumbered and drowned out by a dichotomised discourse that didn’t provide space for a ‘third choice’ – neither brotherhood nor army.
After approximately 1000 pro-Morsi protesters were killed on August 14-16th by Security forces, a state of emergency and curfew was put in place. Unlike previous attempts at imposing a curfew, which were largely ignored, the following three months of curfew was largely adhered to. One of the noisiest areas, Downtown Cairo, became a ghost town in the evenings, all the shops shut with only the headlights of the odd car seen breaking curfew.
As part of enforcing the curfew, Army APCs and tanks were placed strategically around the city, Tahrir Square especially well guarded. Little in the way of opposition or uproar was voiced in response to the increased security presence, as it was interpreted as a necessary presence. This could be seen as symbolic of the government’s successful reclamation of public space.
Not long after the military-backed interim government’s popular approval peaked (during the nationalistic October 6th War celebration) a draft of the new protest law was approved by the cabinet and placed under the review of interim President Adly Mansour.
When details of the law were exposed, it was met by a deluge of outrage and disapproval across the societal spectrum: salafists; April 6th Youth Movement; political figures; rights groups; youth revolutionary block; and even the Tamarod group – one of the Army’s main grassroots cheerleaders. It seemed the army had overplayed their hand and overestimated their carte blanche support.
“Other people were looking after their own interests [before], but after this law, it’s affecting their interests too and violating everyone’s rights. It’s amazing because what Sisi did has actually united the people.” Says Deena Mahmoud, a spokesperson for the Anti-Coup Alliance. “[Sisi] has decided to determine the will of the people, even the ones who are with him, to close their mouths and to decide alone, so even Tamarod aren’t really allowed to speak. People both with him and against him are not allowed to speak now.”
Despite the overwhelming criticism, the interim President went on to pass the law. The details of the final draft its and heavy-handed application proved worrying enough to prompt the EU High Representative and the UN Secretary-General into voicing their concerns at the law and the events that immediately followed its implementation.
On November 26th, the day the anti-demonstration law went into effect, a protest was planned outside the Shura Council in Downtown Cairo. Those participating were peaceful and relatively small in number, some 150 people; amassed in opposition to a long contentious aspect of the judiciary – namely the trying of civilians within military courts.
Within 30 minutes, riot police appeared on the opposite side of the street. A policeman on a loudspeaker gave the protesters 5 minutes to disperse. As soon as the time was up, they opened with water cannons before charging, beating and arresting any protesters who couldn’t get away fast enough.
Ironically, while arresting several dozen of the protesters, the police accidentally broke a stipulation of the new law they were so fervent in upholding. Video footage emerged of men and women being harassed by plain-clothes policemen despite Article 11 of the law clearly stating [emphasis mine] “Security forces in official uniform should disperse protests, meetings or marches…”
Some 27 people sat in jail as a direct result, including high profile activists like Ahmed Abdurahman, Alaa Abd El-Fattah, Ahmed Douma and Ahmed Maher. With regards to those last three, official warrants of arrest were issued for them after the demonstration. Their charges included: incitement to violence, rallying and “thuggery”, resisting authorities and violating the new protest law.
23 of those 27 have now been released on bail, but the other four remain in detention: Alaa and Abdurahman for the events by the Shura Council, Douma and Maher for events outside Abdeen. Now the prosecutor general has referred Alaa and 24 other activists to the criminal court for breaking the protest law.
On hearing of his warrant, Alaa Abd El-Fattah (having already been detained under Mubarak, Tantawi and Morsi) released a statement saying “my ever imminent arrest is now a running joke in Egypt”. Nevertheless, he indicated his intention to turn himself in on Saturday at noon but was not given the chance.
That Thursday, Alaa’s home was invaded by security services. He and his wife were beaten, their laptops taken and Alaa arrested. Having already made his intentions of turning himself in very clear, the actions of the security services appear somewhat punitive.
As the ire of the activist community and ‘Third Square’ (supporters of neither the Brotherhood nor the Military) groups increases against the incumbent powers, so do incidences of articles smearing them as sexual deviants, or inhuman (as demonstrated by an article titled “Human Rights? What Human?”)
Nevertheless, as more cases of injustice crop up, more people who affiliate with neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor the Army are making their voices heard. In Alexandria 7 female minors were sent to juvenile detention while another 14 women were handed 11-year sentences (longer than many policemen convicting of killing civilians receive). All for making a human chain and holding balloons sympathetic to Mohamed Morsi. In the aftermath of disgust shown towards the verdict, the detainees had their sentences reduced to one suspended year.
After the first draft of the protest law, increasingly variegated factions of Egyptians are voicing concerns towards matters of injustice, corruption and reform. They hint at a future where the theatre of the street and public spaces are once again a weapon wielded against the state and for reform, rather than for the state and the status quo.