Egypt’s Islamist-led government approved a draft law on demonstrations on Wednesday that backers say meets international democratic standards but critics believe will give the state too much power to stifle protest.
The bill will be sent to the Shura council, the Islamist-dominated upper house of parliament, which currently has sole legislative power during Egypt's transition to democracy.
“This law has been drafted to restore peace to protests, which are considered to be among the strongest rights granted to the nation,” Justice Minister Ahmed Mekky said, according to the state news agency MENA.
Heba Morayef, Egypt director of Human Rights Watch, countered: “This law seems designed to actually increase restrictions, whereas the existing legal framework, which dates back to the early 20th century, was bad enough.
“If one protester commits a crime, it gives the police the right to disperse the entire protest,” Morayef told Reuters.
Close to 60 people died in violent protests against Islamist President Mohammed Mursi between Jan. 25, the second anniversary of the start of Egypt’s popular uprising, and Feb. 4.
Protests on everything from political rights to economic grievances have become a routine feature of public life in the last two years, prior to which they were severely repressed.
Under the draft law, Mekky said, peaceful protest would be a right that must be protected and this would require formal notification of demonstrations at least three days in advance. Police may order the route of a protest march to be changed.
Morayef said the draft law would give police too sweeping powers to disperse protests, and included unacceptable restrictions on demonstrating within 200 meters (yards) of government buildings, parliament, embassies, courts, places of worship, police stations, courts and military zones.
However, Mekky said the draft gives the police the duty to protect protests. It aims to avoid any confusion between the right of peaceful assembly, which the state is obliged to protect, and acts of aggression against people and property, or obstruction of highways and public facilities.
The authorities would have the right to seek a court injunction banning a demonstration, and the bill would outlaw blocking roads and squares and wearing masks or scarves obscuring the face.
One contentious article would prohibit carrying banners or chanting slogans that include insults, defamation or contempt of "heavenly" religions, or that stir sedition, violence or hatred or include an offence to state bodies and institutions.
Visiting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Michael Posner said on Tuesday that it was important that the Egyptian government “respect international principles of free assembly and association and the critical role civil society plays in any democratic society.”
Thousands of Egyptian riot police and conscripts have gone on strike to demand the interior minister's resignation, saying he is too close to the country’s Islamist leadership, security sources said on Wednesday.
The Interior Ministry said the walkout was based on an erroneous belief that the government planned to ban demonstrations, pitching the police into confrontation with protesters.