North Africa, West Asia

The (anti-) protest law: no more public space in Egypt?

The battle for dominance over public space in Egypt will continue, determining the future relationship between state and society.

Marwa Fikry Abdel Samei
29 November 2013

People’s reclaim of public space was one of the crucial gains, if not the only gain, of the January 25 Revolution. The success of the revolution was in fact only achieved when the protesters managed to hold their ground at Tahrir Square. With the absence of trusted and deep-rooted political parties and the lack of confidence in most political elites, the streets and squares became the most accessible means for people to express their demands, grievances, and opinions. Public space represented not only a site but also an instrument of revolutionary struggle.

Over the last three years, the deep Egyptian state has been trying to restore its control over public space. Meanwhile, political activists and protesters have been persistent in protecting their only visible gain and making it an indispensable permanent, undisputed right. To be sure, at times this right was abused and had become relatively hackneyed since the revolution, but the idea that the state was no longer the master of public space denoted a volte-face in state-society relations.

Since the July 3 coup, it has become increasingly obvious just how adamant the new/old regime is in its attempt to reinstate the old authoritative formula of the state’s relationship with its citizens. It is truly ironic that this regime, which established its legitimacy on a public stage, packed full of protesters ( whether supporters or opponents of the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood) is now determined, rather unashamedly, to tighten its grip over public space anew. To achieve this goal, the regime has employed various tactics and strategies.

The very first strategy was the immediate enforcement of the emergency law and curfew after the disposition of President Morsi. Among other things, emergency laws are notorious for their restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression. The significance of these measures went much deeper than mere censorship, however. It was a clear message from the state to the society that the public space is not ‘yours’ any more; rather, it belongs to the state, which has the sole right in determining its regulations.

The second strategy was enacted by General Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s call for people to fill the squares to mandate him to use the procedures necessary to “fight potential violence and terrorism.” The significance of the call lies not only in its establishment of a new pattern of mobilization, but also in its transcendent meaning. It was the first step in depriving public space – Tahrir Square in particular— of its free will and independence by co-opting it into serving the dictates of the state. This was also a sign that public space in “new Egypt” will not be available for opposing the regime any more, but only as formerly for supporting it. Furthermore, from now on, streets and squares will only be used for mobilization upon a request from the state and under its auspices.

The third strategy was ‘shock therapy’ manifested in the violent dispersal of Rabaa’s encampment and the ruthless handling of the demonstrations. The significance of this carnage lies, not in its intentional use of excessive force, but its association with the notion of the “reverence” the state must be held in by its citizens. This reflects how the regime thinks of public space as one of its protected domains of power, as well as how far they can go in asserting it. This perception of public space seems to be consistent with the junta’s view of what has been happening in Egypt since the revolution. In a leaked video recording where General El Sisi was addressing a group of officers six months before the coup, he said that the revolution was “deconstructing all the rules and restrictions that used to be found in Egypt.” Although he was talking specifically about the media, his view can easily extend to public space itself. After all, what really concerned him the most was the deconstruction of restrictions.

Law was the fourth strategy used to consolidate the state’s grip over public space. Legalizing and outlawing political activities in public space has become one of the key mechanisms in the realization of this goal. Two recent laws highlight this fact.

The first is a draft law to ban wall graffiti and enact a sentence of four years in addition to a fine for violators. Graffiti was one of the popular art expressions that flourished with the January 25 revolution. It was used to make public claim to space through open declarations on walls. With the developments on the ground, graffiti became part of a repertoire of actions of civil disobedience to prove “who would have the final word”. Revolutionaries, therefore, were outraged every time the authorities accidentally, or likely intentionally, effaced the paintings. For a considerable segment of Egyptian activists, graffiti became their means of response and resistance to the attempts that aimed to exclude or marginalize them.

Although the government has claimed that what they reject was offensive phrases, the elastic phrasing of the bill makes it applicable to other categories as well. In the state’s view, graffiti represents lawlessness, anarchy, and, most importantly, loss of control over public space. Graffiti keeps the revolutionary momentum alive in the streets and offers a different narrative on the revolution independently of the state’s discourse. By doing this, it openly challenges the state’s ability to flex its muscles over the streets and squares.

The second example is the ‘Protest Law’, which outlines in detail the conditions that must be met before a protest, political meeting or march is held. It criminalizes demonstrations that take place without prior government permission. Since the January revolution, subsequent governments have tried to restore what the state had lost in terms of public space. What is new this time is the uncompromising rhetoric and actions of the authorities. The way the police dealt with the protestors in front of the parliament on November 26 was a clear message that unauthorized demonstrations peaceful or otherwise, will not be tolerated. As Major Abdel Fattah Osman, assistant interior minister for media affairs, told the privately-owned CBC television channel, unauthorized protests challenge “the state and its prestige.” “The protesters,” he added, “want to embarrass the state. But the state is capable [of stopping them].”

For many parties in Egypt now, survival on the streets is their only means of resistance and maintaining political survival. It is also considered as an organic part of the ongoing revolution. This simply means that the fight for the street is not over yet. The battle for dominance over public space in Egypt will continue, and it will determine the future relationship between the state on the one side, and the society, on the other side.

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