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Challenging Egypt's regime

Tom Stevenson
February 2, 2017

Activists, lawyers and human rights groups in Egypt are mounting a fight back against the government's repressive assembly law and its crackdowns on the country's embattled opposition. Tom Stevenson reports.

Kairo Proteste gegen das Regime von Al-Sissi
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Nabil

Led by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) and four of the country's best-known dissident lawyers, the opposition group on Wednesday filed a case against Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi at the State Council seeking an injunction on the so-called assembly law, which has been used by the government to underpin the arrest and imprisonment of thousands of Egyptian demonstrators.

Sissi's government has jailed more than 40,000 people since it came to power in a military coup in July 2013. The government has been criticized for its extensive use of extrajudicial killings, torture and crackdowns on civil rights organizations.

Ägypten Proteste für Demokratie 2013 Tote
Sissi's rule has been marked by a huge crackdown on dissidents and critics of his regimeImage: picture-alliance/Anadolu Agency/M. Elshamy

The assembly law, together with the complementary 2013 protest law and the 2015 anti-terror law, has provided the legal basis for the crackdowns.

On January 30, the CIHRS published a major study into the assembly law that concluded the law, which was originally instituted under British colonial rule, had in fact already been repealed by the Egyptian parliament 89 years ago and is therefore invalid. The legal case now being mounted by senior opposition figures against the government is based on this research.

Bahey eldin Hassan, the director of the CIHRS, described the law as "unjust and obsolete" and called for the facilities of those prosecuted to be recompensed. "It's time President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi takes the initiative to immediately renounce this historic and legal indignity by abolishing the British colonial administration law, originally designed to suppress Egyptian resistance to occupation," Hassan told DW via email.

The human rights group had planned to release its findings last year, but its report was delayed by an attack on the CIHRS in the run-up to publication that saw the state impose travel bans on its staff and freeze the assets of the group. Hassan received death threats prior to the publication of the report.

Mohamed Zaree, CIHRS's Egypt director, said the Egyptian government had used the assembly law to carry out political repression that exceeds that of the colonial era. "The British colonial administration could not justify the continued application of this law to their own people after World War I. But post-independence Egyptian leaders blithely imposed it on their citizens, and they continue to cling to it 103 years later, and 89 years after its repeal," he told DW via email.

Worsening repression

Egypt's government has been increasingly targeting and intimidating opposition figures and civil rights groups with travel bans, asset-freezes and arrests. On January 28, state prosecutors ordered the detention of nine protesters who had been arrested for protesting on the sixth anniversary of the 2011 uprisings that brought down former President Hosni Mubarak.

While Egypt's ruling elite appears to be more divided than it has looked over the past three years, there will be real difficulties in reversing the state's repression of opposition activism, according to Amro Ali, an academic sociologist at the American University in Cairo.

"While anything is possible, despite institutional divisions and elite wars Egypt's ruling faction are all united around one factor: that public protest will no longer be tolerated," Ali told DW.

"However small victories can be enough to revive some hope, and enable some form of activism to continue," he said. "This is happening at a time when the worst of the fascist tide has passed but when the regime has lost its political capital, and is now only banking on violence as the only currency."

Since the military coup the army has gathered more and more power in Egypt and increasing numbers of civilians are being tried in military tribunals. A military court in Egypt's second city, Alexandria, is currently trying 26 workers accused of staging a sit-in at the Alexandria Shipyard Company last May.

While two of the country's foremost opposition activists - Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, the leaders of the April 6 youth movement - were released from prison last month, the two men are now being forced to spend their nights in police custody. The April 6 movement's third leader, Ahmed Douma, is still in detention pending an appeal of a life sentence.

Ägypten Ahmed Maher und Ahmed Doma im Gerichtssaal in Kairo
Opposition activist Ahmed Maher (left) has been released from jail but is still under close police scrutinyImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Khaled

Continuing opposition

But despite the repression, opposition activists are continuing to challenge the state's crackdowns. Last December, dissident lawyers successfully brought a case to the Constitutional Court that saw an article of the protest law that gives the Ministry of Interior the right to ban protests declared unconstitutional. 

Sissi has also experienced a challenge from the country's powerful and usually pliant judiciary, including the influential Judges Club. On February 1, the State Council sided in favor of a judicial challenge to a new law that would have given Sissi the power to appoint the heads of the country's highest judiciary body.

Last month, Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court ruled against Sissi's order to transfer the sovereignty of the previously Egyptian Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, an issue the opposition has used to mobilize popular dissidence against the regime. The government is contesting the judgement.

"People are carrying on working in the cause of justice and reform despite the unprecedented savage efforts of the regime," said Ahdaf Soueif, an Egyptian novelist and dissident intellectual who put her name to the legal challenge against the assembly law.

"People are challenging the regime in every arena available," Soueif told DW. "I'm not sure whether we will see an immediate change because of the revelation that this law they've been using against young revolutionaries doesn't exist, but this is one more important item being put in place for the general proposition that the regime is acting outside the law."