The Courageous Few Challenging Egypt's Protest Law

The Arab Spring is now but a tiny trickle, as the new Egyptian government jails not just the Brotherhood but activists of any kind. Those still standing continue, despite the poor odds.

Cairo police forces during a demonstration against the anti-protest law in front of the presidential palace in Cairo
Cairo police forces during a demonstration against the anti-protest law in front of the presidential palace in Cairo
Heba Afify

CAIRO — On April 16, a small group of protesters excitedly marched into Tahrir Square, only to be chased out minutes later by police forces with tear gas.

"Revolutionaries are in Tahrir Square," activist Alaa Abd El Fattah tweeted. "It's true that we ran in and ran out, but we will still consider it an achievement."

After this protest in Tahrir, which has gone from a revolutionary hub to a restricted area for dissidents, the movement made its next large march to the presidential palace in late April.

But this week Abd El Fattah was arrested outside a courtroom, where a judge had just sentenced him to 15 years for illegally protesting and assaulting policemen, among other charges.

His arrest, alongside peers Wael Metwally and Mohamed Noubi, has caused an uproar among activists, whose space has been dwindling. Their fight now is about holding ground.

Zizo Abdou, a member of the April 6 Youth Movement, which was recently banned, says he and other activists are cautiously but defiantly trying to reclaim "the lost territories of the revolution."

Three years after an anti-regime mobilization that brought millions to the streets, being able to hit that same street is an act of protest today. Such a simple accomplishment is regarded as an achievement in today's Egypt by this meager group that wants to keep going.

These days, the group chooses audacious locations and escalating measures, and attempts to avoid confrontations with the police, which have proved costly in recent months. A protest often ends shortly after people arrive, and other protective measures are taken such as inviting public figures to participate.

The day the revolution ceases to be seen in the streets, even in a weakened condition, will be the end, they argue.

Legislating obedience

Abdou is one of a few activists who initiated a campaign in April demanding the annulment of the protest law, issued last November, which imposed strict limitations on the right to demonstrate and freedom of assembly.

He says the concrete victories of the campaign have been limited. In some cases, it was able to improve the prison conditions of detainees or draw attention to certain cases.

But the campaign has another main function.

"If I shut up and stay home, it would be a huge victory for the state, and it would succeed in, not weakening, but eradicating the revolution altogether," he says.

For Abdou, the revolutionary movement is hanging on by a thread after the state's crackdown on political expression after last year's ouster of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Since then, this revolutionary movement that has survived national politics being reduced to state-versus-Brotherhood has been trying to expand protest space, figuratively and literally.

Activist Khaled Abdel Hameed says that the mere presence of a street movement unsettles the current regime, whose leader, former military commander Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was recently inaugurated president. It similarly unsettles the Muslim Brotherhood.

"Both parties of the battle are keen on suggesting they are the only players on the scene. Our presence challenges that," Abdou says.

Defending even Brotherhood speech

State crackdown aside, the Brotherhood has criticized this group of mostly secular activists, accusing it of not taking a strong enough stand against the crackdown on the Brotherhood members. The protest law activists have made a point of focusing on all political detainees regardless of their political affiliation. But on many occasions Muslim Brotherhood detainees have refused to use lawyers sent by the activists to attend interrogations with them.

Abdel Hameed adds that in the absence of independent protesters in the streets, the state could succeed in propagating deposed President Hosni Mubarak's myth that the Muslim Brotherhood is the only opposition to the government, and easily eradicate all opposition.

"It is important to carve a third way, difficult as it is," Hameed says.

Many activists say the current period is the worst in the short life of the Jan. 25 revolution, and the most difficult in their personal history of activism.

While he remains hopeful, believing that the strongest movements are born in the hardest situations, Abdou says that the current situation has unique challenges that are different from the political drought he witnessed under Mubarak.

Dwindling numbers

In the last few months, the revolutionary camp — namely those activists who refuse both the militarization and the Islamization of politics — has shrunk, just as it enters its most difficult battle. Many of the groups, parties and figures considered to be "revolutionary" have changed camps and are now on the state's side. Others remain in the opposition but have stayed away from the street, deeming it too dangerous.

Those who are still active have become state targets, beyond the crackdown on the Brotherhood.

"The state is personalizing its battle with the youth of the revolution, and insists on picturing them as the cause of all chaos," Abdou says. Both prominent and lesser known activists have gone to prison on protest charges.

Lack of popular solidarity with the political crackdown is another challenge. "Before the revolution, there was hidden popular support," Abdou says. "When people would see us in a protest, they would be with us but too afraid to join. Now the people harbor a hidden support for the state that's killing us."

The turnout at protests is incomparable to the numbers that turned out in recent years. When Nourhan Hefzy — the wife of prominent activist Ahmad Douma, who was sentenced to three years in prison under the protest law — called for a women's sit-in at the Ettehadiya Presidential Palace in April to demand the release of all detainees, fewer than 10 women showed up.

Abd El Fattah, who spoke to Mada Masr days just before going to jail, says that the revolutionary movement's constant state of emergency over the last three years has taken its toll. Between working on the cases of other prisoners of conscience, he has constantly anticipated his own arrest.

"We have been busy putting out fires," he says. "We didn't have time to take a breather or think about anything other than the right to live and the safety of the body, which is a good thing if we embrace it."

Manufacturing hope

For him, once the intensity of the crackdown breaks, activists should work not on merely holding revolutionary ground, but preparing it — strengthening the organization and attracting more people. Abdel Hameed shares his view, saying that the movement's main function is to remain ready for the people's next uprising.

But for Abdel Hameed, it is socio-economic demands, spearheaded by the labor movement, that will make people rise against the current regime. These are bound to happen, he says, in light of government failure to bring concrete gains to ordinary Egyptians. While the people are currently making excuses for the state's violations of rights with elaborate conspiracy theories, he says that when the government fails to respond to social demands, there won’t be as much space to maneuver.

"The political forces have to be able to build a bridge between political and social battles," he says. "We didn't succeed in that last time."

Loss of hope is held as the one burdensome challenge.

Throughout the last three years, the revolution that ignited an explosion of hope and aspirations for long-time activists as well as ordinary Egyptians has seen more defeats than victories.

"It’s a tough situation," Abd El Fattah says. "We struggle out of necessity. Despair is not an option, and hope is a luxury.”

Many people believe that fear stopped people from acting under Mubarak, but he says that isn't true. "It was the lack of hope," he says.

While this hope was propelled by seeing Tunisia triumph in 2011, this time around activists have a mission to somehow "manufacture hope" again, and make people believe once more that change is possible.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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