Egypt court says government cannot ban protests

Protesters must first notify government and abide by other rules, but they cannot be stopped from staging demonstrations, supreme constitutional court rules.

Protests in Egypt, such as this one in front of the Cairo security directorate on February 18, 2016 after a police officer shot a man dead in the street, are illegal without first notifying the authorities. Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters
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Cairo // Egypt’s supreme constitutional court on Saturday struck down part of a law that allowed authorities to ban all but officially sanctioned protests.

The 2013 law, which has been used to jail activists for up to two years, required demonstrators to inform the interior ministry that they were planning a protest. The ministry could then refuse permission.

The court ruled that the article giving the interior minister the right to ban protests was unconstitutional. However, it upheld three other articles of the law that were challenged, including one that criminalises any gathering that threatens public order.

Those articles require would-be protesters to notify the interior ministry of any public gathering of more than 10 people at least three days in advance, imposes jail sentences of up to five years for those who violate a broad list of protest restrictions, and allows security forces to disperse illegal demonstrations with water cannon, tear gas and birdshot.

Egyptian rights organisations have said the law criminalises all forms of peaceful assembly and gives the state a free hand to disperse peaceful gatherings by force.

Its strict enforcement has largely succeeded in ending the kind of mass demonstrations that helped unseat two presidents in three years as activists who have held even small, peaceful gatherings were detained.

The ruling means that hundreds of protesters arrested under the law will remain in prison.

The law was passed months after Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi, who was army chief at the time, removed the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi from the presidency in 2013 following mass protests against his rule.

Egyptian lawyers challenged parts of the law in the administrative court in 2014, saying they violated article 73 of the constitution.

The article allows the “right to organise public meetings, marches, demonstrations and all forms of peaceful protest while not carrying weapons of any type, upon providing notification as regulated by law”.

But the court ruled on Saturday that only article 10, which grants the interior ministry authority to deny protest requests, was unconstitutional.

Mr El Sisi had said in October that his government would look into revising the law, shortly after pardoning 82 people jailed on political grounds or over freedom of expression.

* Agence France-Presse and Reuters