Egypt protest law amendment offers little change, lawyers say

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt’s cabinet on Wednesday approved an amendment to a law that bans protests, making it more difficult for the Interior Ministry to disperse them, but lawyers said it would not expand people’s freedom to demonstrate.

Protests have become a sensitive issue since Egyptians took to the streets in huge numbers to oust Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and the army toppled freely elected President Mohamed Mursi after mass demonstrations against him in 2013. Protests have resulted in hundreds of people being jailed or shot dead.

The law on protests passed in 2013 says the Interior Ministry must be notified of any public gathering of more than 10 people at least three days in advance.

It also imposes jail sentences of up to five years for those who violate a broad list of restrictions and allows security forces to disperse illegal demonstrations with water cannon, tear gas and birdshot.

The cabinet amended a controversial article of the protest law which allowed the Interior Ministry to cancel or change the location of any protest deemed a threat to security.

The amendment requires the ministry to ask permission from a court, based on evidence or information that the protest poses a security threat, before it can disperse or change its location, Justice Minister Mohamed Hossam Abdelrehim told a news conference.

Protesters are still banned from gathering in public without prior approval.

“This development looks better on paper but in the end it is same, same,” said Abdel Hakim al-Kordy, a lawyer who defends activists and non-governmental organizations.

“It will not make it more difficult for the Interior Ministry to disperse protests because we can see a marriage between the judiciary and the Interior Ministry,” he said referring to cases in which protesters were given hefty sentences for protesting.

Officials from the Interior Ministry were not reachable for comment.

In May, a court sentenced 152 protesters to between two and five years in prison after they demonstrated against a decision to transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.

In similar protests, on April 15, thousands of people demanded “the fall of the regime”, a slogan from the uprisings which ended Mubarak’s 30 years in power.

More than 100 people were detained at those protests, security officials said at the time. Most were later freed without charge, judicial sources said.

“We want the right to protest to be given to us without any restrictions or conditions,” Kordy said.

Reporting by Asma Alsharif