It sounds like an Orwellian plot twist: dozens thrown in prison for protesting a protest law.
Instead of fiction, it’s the reality in Egypt right now — one that may herald a new upswing in dissent in the country that has led the world in mass uprisings since 2011.
Just about two weeks ago, dozens of people who were protesting in front of the Itihadiya presidential palace in Cairo were arrested for violating the notorious protest law that was enacted in late 2013. The law states that no public assembly or protests can take place without permission. The protest was peaceful and called for the end of the protest law itself.
Last Sunday, the first trial against these protesters was scheduled to take place. However, as has been the case for many other activists and journalists who have been arrested for violating the protest law, their trial has been delayed.
The law itself is deceptive. It requires not only prior notification to hold a protest, but actual permission before the said protest. The wording itself is vague, and leaves several regulations up to the judgement of security forces, making the law flexible enough for the Interior Ministry to interpret it according to its interests.
This wave of protest comes just about a month after the botched presidential election in which former military general Abdelfattah El Sisi emerged as the winner. The protest law — and the arrest and incarceration of those who violate it — serves as an indication of what Egyptians can expect under a Sisi presidency. Complete erasure of opposing voices is what this administration appears to be seeking, whether the dissenters are the Muslim Brotherhood supporters or leftist groups such as the Revolutionary Socialists. So far, Sisi has not made any comment on these arrests, implying his approval and complicity in how the law is being enforced.
With an Egyptian judicial system that has no problem in meting out mass death sentences to hundreds for a single murder while dithering in cases such as the Al Jazeera journalists who continue to have their trials pushed back, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Egyptian judicial system is less of an institution that protects and enforces the law and more of an institution that exists to protect the Interior Ministry.
But the repression isn’t just an indication of what we can expect with Sisi; it also gives a window into what type of civil resistance we may soon see in Egypt. As backlash against dissenters continue to rise, it’s becoming evident that state institutions are on shaky ground, and it could very well be only a matter of time before we see a larger wave of dissent against the current regime.