Last month, Egypt’s interim ministry of justice proposed a law that would severely restrict Egyptians’ right to protest and assemble. If signed into law, the drafted legislation would give authorities the ability to cancel and violently crackdown on demonstrations without clear reason or warning. This move poses a serious threat to freedom of speech and civil society – essential ingredients in a burgeoning democracy. A recent book I co-authored, Pathways to Freedom: Political and Economic Lessons From Democratic Transitions, examines the experience of eight countries that in recent decades embarked on transitions away from authoritarian rule and toward democracy. Although each country’s trajectory is different, comparison reveals some common themes: one of the most important lessons is that a robust and independent civil society, in which citizens can actively participate and voice their political opinions, is crucial to making a successful transition to democracy.
Not surprisingly, Egypt’s proposed law has been met with resistance from government opposition parties and liberal activists, who fear it signals the return of a police state in Egypt and makes the military’s anti-democratic intentions clear. Popular satirist Bassam Youseef, known as the Jon Stewart of Egypt, has made jabs at the military regime, denouncing rampant censorship and “Pharaoh-ism,” but has come short of calling out the military regime by name, possibly in fear of retaliation. International groups have strongly denounced the law: Amnesty International, for example, says it “paves the way for further bloodshed” and ignores “the lessons of past crackdowns that have left hundreds dead.”
In response to criticism, some Egyptian officials have announced they will consider revisions to the drafted law. But others stand by it, claiming that demonstrations have “become a burden on Egyptian society” and that “a large segment of the Egyptian society has begun to reject the idea of demonstrations, believing that they have led to nothing but deterioration in all aspects of life, not to mention the violence and loss of life witnessed.”
Protests have grown increasingly bloody since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak almost three years ago. But many liberal activists claim the blame for such violence lies squarely with the security forces, not the unarmed protestors they have attacked. The Muslim Brotherhood, at the core of the opposition movement, is calling for a peaceful protest against government repression on November 4, although it is doubtful that the demonstration will remain calm given the military’s ongoing violent campaign against the Brotherhood and this proposed new legal backing for use of force.
Without a doubt, the government’s proposed ban threatens to curtail civil society, and by extension, democracy in Egypt. As my co-authors and I discuss in Pathways to Freedom, a healthy, vibrant civil society is a critical ingredient in democracy. A cacophony of voices and demonstrations might make Egyptian politics messier, but after decades of “tidy” dictatorial rule, an independent and outspoken civil society is just what the country needs to transition to a more inclusive political system.