The Struggle over the Egyptian Public Sphere

The popular uprising against the regime of Hosni Mubarak in January 2011 opened the public sphere to various groups and movements. While the transitional period under the rule of the Supreme Council of Military Forces (SCAF) and then former president Mohammad Morsi witnessed an attempt to regain state control over the public sphere, these often failed because of the weakness of state institutions, which were unable to enforce their rules, while popular groups and movements were able to mobilise support around their activities. However, following the military intervention in July 2013, the balance of power shifted. On the one hand, state institutions regained a large part of their credibility after siding with the protesters in June 2013 to remove Morsi. On the other, the struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood has allowed the government to take a number of measures aiming at regaining state control over the public sphere. To achieve this aim, the regime has issued a number of laws and decisions targeting different actors.

To fully describe the on-going campaign to restrict Egypt’s public space, this paper will focus on three main actors involved in the struggle: civil society, universities, and religious organisations. Altogether, the paper will show the new legal framework that grants the courts and security services power to restrict civil society’s activity.

1. The crackdown on civil society

Civil society did not pass through any post-revolution easy phase. In the aftermath of the revolution, amending the 2002 Law on association was one of the main priorities of the various human rights groups. Reform projects had already been proposed both by the Mubarak regime in 2010, and by those who governed after him: SCAF in 2012, Morsi in 2013. But civil society future will be influenced above all by two new laws:

· the Law on the Right to Public Meetings, Processions and Peaceful Demonstrations, passed by former ad interim president Adly Mansour on 24 November 2013,[1] also known as the Protest Law;

· the Association Law, known as the Non-Governmental Organisations Law.[2] The last draft was presented on 26 June 2014.[3]

Even if during the 2011 revolution Egyptians regained the right to demonstrate, the new 2013 Protest Law seems to aim at reversing this tendency. In fact, the Protest Law requires the organisers of protests to notify the police at least three days prior to the event (Art. 8), in default of which there is a fine from 10,000 to 30,000Egyptian pounds (14,000–42,000 dollars) (Art. 21). Further, it allows the Ministry to ban protests if it receives information indicating that the assembly constitutes a “presence of threats to security or peace”(Art. 10). The vague language allows the Ministry a wide discretion to ban protests. While the law allows organisers to appeal this decision before a court (Art. 10), it does not set forth a timeframe for hearing the appeal. Furthermore, while the Protest Law stipulates that security forces should first warn the protesters before using water cannons, tear gas and batons(Art. 11), at the same time it also allows security forces to gradually use force on participants undertaking acts of violence, sabotage, or destroying public and private properties (Art. 12). It allows also the use of bird-shot pellets during the dispersal and even live ammunition in cases of “self-defence” (Art. 13). FurthermoreArt.16–21 of the law also provides a list of penalties (fines and imprisonments) for those who violate the law.[4]

Since this norm has been implemented, the numbers of activists arrested[5]have skyrocketed.[6] These events have spurred on dissidents — inside and outside the prisons — to start hunger strike campaigns[7] protesting against a law thatwill inevitably restrict peaceful political demonstrations.

Moving to the draft law on NGOs, if approved, it would impose greater surveillance from the government, through the realisation of a coordinating board with veto power over NGOs’ activities and finances, also providing more severe penalties.. Under Article 4 of the draft law, all non-governmental organisations must apply for re-registration as associations, but the government has the authority to reject the registrations. Furthermore, the draft calls for the creation of a Coordinating Committee with broad authority to regulate the activities of civic associations by controlling their funding (either authorising or rejecting) and granting or denying permits to international organisations to operate in Egypt..[8]In addition, this law could become a guillotine to grants. As NGOs would see their activities and opportunities to finance themselves, especially from abroad, as more limited. Currently, associations have to seek governmental approval prior to raising funds domestically. As a result, domestic donors have become reluctant to fund human rights organisations, making foreign funding crucial for the continued operation of NGOs. Outside donations have also been limited, by obliging the association to receive prior approval from the committee, or else face potential dissolution.[9]

While fighting against the approval of this draft[10], social workers and NGOs had to tackle another thorn in their side. On 23 September 2014, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi issued a presidential decree to amend Article 78 of the penal code to include harsher punishment on those receiving foreign funding[11].

Thus, this amendment, together with the laws explained above, appears as another instrument to silence dissenting voices.

3. The regime and the student movement

Following Morsi’s ouster, university campuses saw a wave of demonstrations in which at least 14 students lost their lives confronting the police,[12] in what the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression has described as the worst crackdown on academic freedom in the last 70 years.[13] As a result, the State has made a great effort to take control of all campus activities.

Overturning a 2011 decision,[14] last June Al-Sisi issued a presidential decree that allows him to directly appoint university and faculty deans. The academic year was also postponed until October 11, and, in the meanwhile, both the Cabinet and the deans — who can now dismiss faculty members for “crimes that disturb the educational process” — have taken several decisions to control activities on campus. Cairo University has banned all political activities. To prevent protests inside student dormitories, the University decided to ban all demonstrations for the following academic year. The Cabinet agreed on a draft bill to organise the affairs of Al-Azhar University, another place that witnessed demonstrations, above all with an Islamist mould. The draft bill permits the suspension of the university staff found guilty of fomenting/bringing violence, participating in campus protests, belonging to extremist organisations, or facilitating the entrance of weapons on campus.[15] Several other universities have implemented similar measures and a group of deans agreed that civilian university guards would be provided with batons and shields to defend themselves in violent situations. In addition, a private security company, Falcon Group,[16] has been hired to provide security for Al-Azhar and 15 otherstate universities.

Despite all these security measures, protests have taken place inside many public universities.[17] According to the Students Freedom Observatory,[18]on the first day security forces arrested at least 71 students in 15 governorates.

4. The control of the religious sphere

Over the past months, the Egyptian government has tightened its grip on mosques and unlicensed imams as part of a general crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite constant, vehement emphasis on having ousted Morsi to keep religion out of politics, the “new” authorities have increased authoritarian control over religious discourse. Public religious activities are seen as a key method of outreach for the Muslim Brotherhood and a number of measures have been enacted to end the religious sphere’s political activities and its autonomy from the State.[19]

According to Georges Fahmi, the drive to control religious institutions began in March 2014 when the Ministry issued Decision Number 64to bring all mosques and oratories in Egypt under its control., in order to organise sermons and religious studies in Egypt’s mosques, in June Mansour promulgated Law Number 51. This prohibited the delivery of sermons that did not have official authorisation. According to the same law, only the Minister of Religious Endowments and the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar can grant preaching permits.[20] As a result, the ministry banned more than 12000 preachers from preaching in mosques, because they were not educated in Al-Azhar.

A further important move was the one to control and standardise the content of Friday sermons. In June 2014, the Ministry published the preaching code of ethics. It is now the Minister’s responsibility to set both the topic and the theme of sermons before prayer.[21]

So far, the steps taken by the “new” authorities have succeeded in extending their control over Egyptian mosques and preachers. Considering the closure of small mosques, the Ministry is now able to cover all of Egypt’s large mosques, numbering 80,000, during Friday prayers.[22]

5. Future challenges

What led to the consolidation of Al-Sisi’s authoritarian regime and what were the conditions that favoured consolidation of the new system of repression? A first explanation can be found in the weak opposition represented by the actors seeking to achieve a reformed Egyptian state and the lack of agreement among the actors on which laws to address.. Secondly, people’s fear of a collapse of the State that would have been followed by a civil war played an important role in creating the space and conditions for Islamists’ repression and Al-Sisi’s rise to power through what was a de facto coup d’état. In fact, following the events of 2013, the Army acquired power and political influence thanks to a constitutional vacuum, as there was no Parliament for over a year. This vacuum was most certainly a crucial factor for the military coup to succeed, as, according to Art.156 of the Constitution, without a legislative body and in situations of emergency the president is able to issue new laws by decree.

Finally, Egypt’s authoritarian tradition was already deeply rooted in the state institutions’ practices, but Al-Sisi’s legislative agenda seems to aim at facilitating and strengthening such practices, providing official bodies with larger discretion in the interpretation of laws, and basically making the appeal to a state of emergency or extraordinary measures unnecessary.

The narrowing of the space for civil society activities, the new (or old) control operations on students and activists, and the prevention of protests inside and outside university campuses are all obstacles to the creation of an inclusive political environment. A vibrant civil society is an essential ingredient for the creation of this effective and stable democracy. The lack of the prerequisite for civil society’s development is an alarming signal, the evident obstacles to its creation are even more worrying. If Egyptianlong-term stability depends on its sustainability,“new” authorities shouldbe careful not to repeat past mistakes. Without a vibrant civil society that works as an antibody to the collapse of democratic dynamics, there is no guarantee for the establishment of a long-term stable and democratic environment.

[1]Presidential Decree for Law No. 107 of 2013 (anti-protest law),24 November 2013,

[2] For a broader vision on Egyptian civil society see Maha M. Abdelrahman, Civil Society Exposed.The Politics of NGOs in Egypt, London, Tauris, 2004.

[3]Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Proposed Government Law Makes NGOs Subordinate to Security and Ministry Control, 9 July 2014,

[4]Fidh, Egypt: New assembly law legitimizes police crackdown on peaceful protests, 29 November 2013,

[5] Among the arrested activists there is Alaa Abdel Fattah. A pioneering Egyptian blogger from a prominent family of writers and activists, Abdel Fattah has been jailed under four different rulers: Mubarak, SCAF, Morsi and Al-Sisi. In this case, he was initially sentenced to 15 years of hard labour for violating the protest law. On 14 September 2014, he was released on 700 dollars bail.

[6]According to official statistics, the Egyptian authorities continue to hold at least 16,000 detainees in prisons and police stations since the ousting of former president Mohamed Morsi.

[7] In September 2014, over 156 individuals have declared their participation in the hunger strike. More than half the participants are imprisoned and others are acting in solidarity through initiatives like Freedom to the Brave, “Gibna Akherna” (We’re at the Last Straw), and the #Fast4Freedom International Day of Solidarity. Prominent detainees on hunger strike include the well-known blogger Ahmed Douma, who is serving a three year prison sentence for defying protest law, Mohamed Soltan, a dual US-Egyptian national whose health has sharply deterioratedand Sanaa Seif, Alaa Abdel Fattah’s sister. See May El-Sadany, “Hunger-Striking: A Legal Approach”, in Tahrir Center for Middle East Policy Commentaries, 16 September 2014,

[8] Human Rights Watch, Egypt: Draft Law Threatens Independent Organizations, 14 July 2014,

[9] Chalaine Chang, “Egypt, swallowing civil society”, in openDemocracy, 19 August 2014,

[10]The draft law, defined by 29 international organisations dealing with human rights as a blatant violation of the Constitution and Egypt’s international commitments, is expected to be introduced in the country’s next Parliament, when elected. In the absence of a legislative power, it could also be promulgated through decree by the president

[11]Within the context of the counterterrorism policy pursued by Egypt since the outbreak of July 2013, this amendment has been justified as being in line with the UN Security Council resolution 2170. Issued on 15 August 2014, this resolution was enacted to strengthen international cooperation to fight against terrorism after the escalated danger from the self-declared “Islamic state”.

[12] “Egypt’s campuses brace for new semester, Islamists vow ‘intense’ protests”, in Ahram Online, 10 October 2014,

[13] See Sayyid Marsot and Afaf Lutfi, “Protest Movements and Religious Undercurrents in Egypt: Past and Present”, in Center for Contemporary Arab Studies Occasional Papers, 1984.

[14] Following a 2011 change made by Egyptian post-revolutionary military rulers, university faculty had elected their own leadership.

[15] “Draft bill to regulate political activity at Azhar University”, in Mada Masr, 18 September 2014,

[17] See Reem Khorshid, “The Falcons on campus”, in Mada Masr, 13 October 2014,

[18] An activist group formed this year to track worsening restrictions on campus political activities.

[19]Georges Fahmi, “The Egyptian State and the Religious Sphere”, in Carnegie Articles, 18 September 2014,

[20]Personal interview with Georges Fahmi, December 2014.

[21]Personal interview with Georges Fahmi, December 2014.

[22]Personal interview with Georges Fahmy, December 2014.

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