How Egypt Uses a Colonial-Era Law to Crush Protests

March 10, 2017

A citizen’s right to protest her government peacefully, a core democratic freedom, is severely restricted in most Arab countries, and Egypt is no exception.  Egyptian authorities over many decades have relied upon one law in particular to suppress popular protest. The 1914 Assembly Law, promulgated during the British occupation to counter unrest during the First World War, allows security forces to disperse with force any gathering of five or more people that they deem a “threat to public peace” and punishes such violations with fines or imprisonment. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), one of Egypt’s best-known civil society groups, recently issued a major report on the Assembly Law. The report argues that this repressive, colonial-era law violates Egypt’s constitution and that it actually should have been repealed back in 1928.  

CIHRS, along with other independent human rights and democracy organizations, is facing intense pressure from the Egyptian regime. Through harassment, media smear campaigns, investigations such as Case No. 173, interrogations, travel bans, asset freezes, and even office closures, the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is trying to muzzle groups that call the state to account for its human rights violations.  CIHRS’s determination in the face of such hostility makes the publication of this report especially notable.

The following is a conversation with the report’s co-author, legal expert Mohamed El Ansary.  The conversation in Arabic was conducted, translated, and edited for clarity by POMED’s Ahmed Rizk, Jenna Amlani, and Amy Hawthorne.

POMED:  How has the al-Sisi government used the Assembly Law to repress dissent?

Mohamed El Ansary:  Security and judicial authorities typically use the Assembly Law in tandem with the Demonstrations Law (sometimes called the Protest Law) in order to squelch protests. Gatherings are broken up, demonstrators are arrested, and many are then charged under both laws, usually with crimes related to unlawful assembly and illegal protest.  Violations of both laws have led to untold numbers of convictions and prison sentences.

The widely-criticized Demonstrations Law, issued in November 2013 after the military ousted Mohamed Morsi from the presidency in July of that year, severely restricts the right to protest and was a notorious signal of Egypt’s return to authoritarianism after the January 2011 revolution. But the 103-year-old Assembly Law is perhaps even more repressive. It allows security forces to decide on the spot that a gathering “threatens public peace” and empowers them to use force to disperse it. As the report explains, “merely by staging an assembly liable to endanger the public peace (with ‘endanger’ determined at the discretion of police) and refusing to leave, the assembled people can be subject to six months in prison.”  

The Assembly Law also allows prosecutors to assign shared criminal liability to every citizen arrested at a gathering or protest.  By not requiring prosecutors to prove that each defendant is guilty of committing a crime, the Assembly Law allows the state to punish many for the crimes of one or of a few.  We believe that this contravenes one of the most basic principles of criminal justice, the individuality of punishment. In addition, the organizers of a protest are considered criminal accomplices even if they are not physically present at a gathering. Finally, violations of the Assembly Law can result in harsher punishment. While the Demonstrations Law can lead to fines for participants in an unlawful protest, according to the Assembly Law this can lead to imprisonment.  When different laws carry different penalties for the same action, Egyptian courts usually impose the most severe penalty allowed.

How many Egyptians have been arrested under the Assembly Law over the past century?

It is impossible to determine exact figures, but I suspect the number is well into the thousands. But beyond the large number of people affected, it is also striking how this law has been used by successive Egyptian rulers–its endurance illustrates the fundamentally authoritarian nature of our political system. The Assembly Law was used during the monarchy to suppress protests against British occupation policies during and after World War I, to arrest hundreds of people during the 1977 bread protests under Sadat, to squash the April 6, 2008 general strike under Mubarak, and to arrest demonstrators in Tahrir Square during the 2011 revolution. In November 2013, it was infamously used to punish those who took part in the Shura Council protest, when some 50 people were arrested and 21 ultimately were convicted of participating in an illegal protest and committing acts of violence, even though only a few of the demonstrators were involved in altercations with police. The courts ruled that the protest organizers, among them the well-known activist Alaa Abdel-Fatah, were responsible for the actions of the entire group according to the Assembly Law, even though they maintained that they had not committed any violence, and sentenced them to prison.

Why is this report groundbreaking?

Our research discovered that Parliament repealed the Assembly Law in 1928, but that the repeal was never officially enacted. This means that the law has been in legal limbo since then.

The story is complicated, but in a nutshell here is what happened.  In January 1928, Parliament voted to repeal the Assembly Law. One member of Parliament, capturing the public mood at the time, castigated it as “a provision of martial law” used “to confiscate the freedom of individuals and repress them.”  King Fouad I did not want to repeal the law and opposed the vote, but he failed to take action to reject the repeal within 30 days, as the 1923 Constitution required. As a result, the repeal was approved by default.

But in order for the repeal to be enacted, it was supposed to be published in the Official Gazette.  However, this never happened. The battle over the Assembly Law was just one part of the conflict between Parliament and the monarchy over the demarcation of their powers. In July 1928, the King dissolved Parliament and gave himself legislative authority.   As Egyptian democracy receded in the face of an increasingly absolutist monarchy, the vote to repeal the Assembly Law was lost in the dustbins of history.

Were Egyptian officials since 1928 aware that the Assembly Law had been repealed as they continued to exploit it to crack down on peaceful dissent?

Certainly, officials during the reign of King Fouad I were aware, as was the King himself. Whether subsequent governments knew the law should have been void after the 1928 vote in Parliament is less clear. Nevertheless, the staunchly anti-colonial regime that came to power in 1952 had no problem using this colonial-era law in its own repression.  In 1968 President Gamal Abdel Nasser even amended Article 3 to increase the maximum penalty for unauthorized peaceful assembly to 20 years’ imprisonment.  Then in 1971, President Anwar Sadat issued the Police Law, which amended the provisions of the Assembly Law to allow the use of firearms to disperse assemblies of five or more persons.

This law, of uncertain legal status and colonial provenance, should not have been used by any of Egypt’s post-colonial rulers. Not only is it a holdover from an era of foreign occupation, it is inconsistent with Egypt’s current constitution. The law effectively negates the right to free assembly enshrined in Article 73 of the Constitution by allowing security forces to break up any peaceful demonstration on the basis of vaguely-defined “security” concerns.     

The report argues that the Assembly Law must be repealed to correct the historical error.  What would this step mean for all those convicted under this law?

Egyptians currently in prison for violating the Assembly Law could see their sentences overturned, or reduced if they were convicted of violating other laws as well. Citizens who have served their full sentence would have the right to sue the state for damages resulting from the government’s failure to publish the repeal in the Official Gazette.  

What is CIHRS’s strategy to push for repealing the Assembly Law?

We want the government to publish the repeal of the law in the Official Gazette, as should have occurred in 1928.  We have filed a lawsuit together with 20 lawyers and public figures calling on the government to do so.  As CIHRS Director Bahey eldin Hassan stated, “It’s time President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi takes the initiative to immediately renounce this historic and legal indignity by abolishing the British colonial administration law…every citizen deprived of his or her freedom under this unjust, obsolete law must be immediately released, with apologies and reparations for their families.” There will be a hearing at the State Council on April 4.  

We have also pushed Parliament to take up the matter. Parliament has discussed [Ar] the report, and the head of the Constitutional and Legislative Committee called on the executive branch to examine our findings. We sent a letter to Speaker of Parliament Ali Abdel Aal requesting a public session to discuss the impact and legitimacy of the Assembly Law, and we sent a letter to Judge Mustafa Shafiq, President of the Supreme Judicial Council, requesting the suspension of the law’s enforcement.

Of course, even if our efforts to get this law off the books succeed, the authorities likely would find new ways to achieve the same repressive result.  The al-Sisi government has shown a lot of imagination in coming up with new ways to criminalize dissent. Nonetheless, in our view getting the state to acknowledge the long-ago repeal of the Assembly Law would represent a victory against repressive legislation. And it could force the al-Sisi regime to address larger questions regarding the severe restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, which it has not been willing to do so far.  

Tell us about the process of researching this report.  What challenges did you face?

CIHRS faced many obstacles due to the government’s general hostility towards independent civil society organizations, particularly human rights organizations like us. Just days after we began to draft an outline for our research, the Minister of Social Solidarity announced that all organizations conducting civic work, including those involved in research and human rights work, had to register under the restrictive 2002 Associations Law (Law 84) or potentially face prosecution or closure. We were compelled to move some activities and staff to Tunisia. Then, CIHRS was targeted in Case No. 173—the so-called foreign funding case—which resulted in the courts banning the report’s primary editor from travel and freezing the assets of the organization and of our director.

It also was impossible for our researchers to gain access to Egypt’s National Archives to review official correspondence and other historical documents concerning the origins of the Assembly Law, even though such documents are more than a century old and not related to the current government. We were told that because we were engaged in political research, we would have to submit an application that would be reviewed by General Intelligence, the National Security Council, and Homeland Security, who would all have to approve our access to archival documents. It was clear to us that these restrictions were meant to allow the government to control Egypt’s historical record and narrative. To avoid losing more time, we studied the more accessible documents housed at the British Archives.  

These obstacles led to a two-year delay in the release of our report. The fact that we have managed to publish it at all is testament to the tenacity of Egypt’s human rights organizations and our persistence despite these very difficult circumstances.

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