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Egypt's Street Politics and the Freedom of Assembly

By Ronald Meinardus *

Egypt's turbulent transition has entered a new phase with first signs of a political realignment. The clear division of Islamists and anti-Islamists - or to bring it to the point: the polarization of pro-30 June forces and their opponents – is dissolving. The military backed government is losing support among the so called revolutionary forces – liberals, leftists and other non-religious groups. Egypt before long could be back to a pre-25 January political landscape: on the one side, the (old) regime sponsored by the military, on the other side all the others who revolted against this order. I hear people say, Egypt is experiencing "Mubarakism without Mubarak". Others believe the country is back under the control of the deep state, with others, finally, throwing in the deep state never was gone.

The single most important catalyst of these new developments has been the government's amendment of the protest law. This far reaching revision decreed by the Interim President unleashed a storm of criticism. That the politically marginalized and increasingly criminalized Islamists would not cheer the modification comes as no surprise. Politically more important are the reactions in the camp of the forces at the forefront of the uprising on June 30, the trailblazers of Egypt's new order. They have made it clear they will not accept the restrictions they say violate the principles of the revolution.

Amending the protest law is no small matter. The freedom of assembly is an outstanding political human right. Together with the freedom of expression and the freedom of association, the right to assemble constitutes a pillar of democracy. The freedom of assembly protects the right of the citizens to gather and express their opinion collectively. All democratic constitutions guarantee this essential right. As all liberal rights, the freedom of association is not boundless. In Germany, where I come from, the citizenship has the right to assemble peacefully only. Any intent to use a demonstration to spread violence is illegal and dealt with accordingly by the authorities. Germany's assembly laws stipulate that organizers must notify the authorities two days in advance. This notification is not to be confused with an application for approval: an official authorization is not required. The authorities, in this case the police, need the information to take necessary precautions such as rerouting traffic.

In Egypt's political process, public protests and demonstrations play a more important role than in advanced democracies of Western Europe. In those countries, frustrated and angry citizens have various avenues to channel their political antagonism. Among the most important such – institutional – channels are political parties and citizens' groups (or civil society in general). In advanced democracies, these groups are well organized and influence the political decision making process on the national and also the municipal level. In Egypt, such mechanisms are either not available or weak and not credible. This lack of responsiveness of the political institutions leads to the prevalence of street politics. In other words, the not ending series of demonstrations is a reflection of the weakness of the political system.

Add to this the flaws of the judicial system, which has failed again and again to bring to justice those individuals (or groups) who have killed or maimed demonstrators. This impunity fans new, often bloody protests held in solidarity with the slain "martyrs" thereby creating a vicious circle which will only end if accountability and justice set in.

I have observed numerous demonstrations both in Germany and in Egypt; the dramaturgy is rather different. In Egypt, public political gatherings often end in violent escalation with dead and wounded. Often, the conduct of the security forces adds to the tension resulting in escalation instead of "de-escalation". Often, a small group of demonstrators throws rocks at the officers who respond in an all but proportionate manner. According to experts in crowd control the disproportionate use of force by the police is the main reason for the violent escalations. This has to do with operational and tactical techniques of police work. The forces confronting angry demonstrators often seem helpless as to how to contain the protests. Using indiscriminate force is an unintelligent tactic which leads to broad fraternization among the protesters and weakens the legitimacy of the government.

Apart from using less force thereby de-escalating the situation, reigning in the armed thugs should be the first priority if the aim is to make Egypt's demonstrations less violent – and therefore safer for all. Sadly, the so called "baltageya" have become a brand name of street politics in Egypt. Amid persistent rumors these criminal "agents provocateurs" are on the pay-role of the "deep state" it is no easy task to neutralize this source of violence. However, as long as the political leadership cannot control the doings of all sectors of the state machine, it is doubtful it can pacify Egypt's rebellious streets.

In this regard, the uprising of January 25 has been a watershed. The new protest law can do little to change that.

* Dr. Ronald Meinardus is the Regional Director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty. Twitter @Meinardus

Published in Daily News Egypt on December 1, 2013
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