Even if high-class figures demonstrated for local interests: Egyptians were denied the right to protest

Yesterday, Saturday, several public figures, including former ministers, participated in a demonstration in Saray Al-Jazeera Street in the Zamalek neighbourhood in Cairo to protest the project to build a multi-stage garage that is considered a picturesque and quiet area.

Participants from the region, including former Foreign Ministers Amr Moussa and Nabil Fahmy, former Minister of Trade and Industry Munir Fakhry Abdel Nour, in addition to the former Minister of Urban Development and Informal Settlements, Laila Iskandar, who was part of Ibrahim Mahlab’s ministry during the current era, rejected the project and demanded that it must be stopped so that they could know the details. And understand what is happening. Participants protested the bulldozer cutting trees in front of the tourist boat area and changing the cultural character of the place, which is considered a tourist and quiet walkway. It also has many perennial trees. The project has been stopped, but they returned and completed the removal work one week ago. In addition to environmental concerns, the neighbourhood is important as a tourist walkway. Therefore, the protesters rejected the project, stressing that the garage might lead to traffic congestion on the 15-meter-wide street.

Demonstration law

The demonstration law was approved in 2013 and amended in May 2017. It imposes heavy restrictions on demonstrations and gives the security forces the right to disperse protests by several means, including tear gas, water cannons, and others. Over the years, human rights organizations and activists have criticized it, like political figures demanding its abolition and are still calling for it. The right to demonstrate was a recent discussion at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh last November. For considerations related to this event, the government allowed demonstrations in designated areas. Still, at the same time, security measures disturbed the peace of the event when an Indian environmental activist was arrested carrying a banner and wanted to raise awareness on climate issues. His lawyer has also been detained before being released with his client.

The “Right to Protest in the Designated Demonstration Square” in the city of Sharm El-Sheikh opened a discussion about the right to demonstrate and its importance for citizens to preserve their interests and protects their rights, and protest against bad conditions and demand their correction, in a peaceful manner, according to what is determined by the constitution and the law. The country is trying to achieve political openness through the national dialogue, which is about to begin. It is an opportunity to support any positive development that will bring the country out of its economic and political slump. However, hundreds have been tried and imprisoned for their participation in protests under the Demonstration Law over the years, along with others imprisoned simply for expressing their opinions on social media. This made clear suspicions of discrimination in dealing with high-ranking political figures (who can protest), compared to how the government dealt with citizens who objected to economic measures. This is a reminder of the importance of ending discrimination as a right according to the constitution.

The global wave of protests

In recent weeks, European capitals such as Madrid, Paris, and others have witnessed protests about the high cost of living and the great economic cost resulting from the Ukrainian war on Russia. London has also seen successive strikes to demand better wages. Asian and Latin American countries also witnessed similar protests. Still, the phenomenon worthy of attention was in China, where rare demonstrations took place against the so-called Zero Covid policy that the government pursues and affects citizens’ lives, some of which even criticized Chinese President Xi Jinping. What was new was the quick response of the authorities in the country to the demands of the protesters and the easing of restrictions.

Egypt is not far from all these problems facing the world, as it has been affected by the economic repercussions of the Corona epidemic, and the consequences of the Russian war on Ukraine, in addition to the financial crisis resulting from inappropriate economic policies, which expanded in borrowing and spending money on infrastructure projects that do not achieve quick returns required to pay off those debts. This increases the urgency of the need to allow protests so that the required balance occurs between government measures and the interests of citizens.

Environment protection

The protest that took place yesterday in Saraya al-Jazeera in Zamalek brings back the importance of green spaces, which increased with the recent climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, given the decline in green spaces means more danger to climate issues. In recent years, Egypt has witnessed massive encroachments on green spaces in the regions and streets, especially in the capital and major cities. The government has expanded in removing trees and replacing them with bridges and asphalt, worsening the situation.

This happens amidst a severe shortage of gardens and green spaces. The Egyptian individual enjoys an area of one square meter, contrary to the World Health Organization’s recommendation that the per capita share be at least 9 meters, which increases the risk of pollution. According to the IQAir index, it harms citizens’ health, as Egypt is ranked 27th out of 117 countries that are the most polluted in the world. And despite the announcement by the Minister of Environment last June of a national afforestation project, the matter has not yet been done as it should be, with the complete absence of municipalities, which are supposed to undertake the planning of green spaces and streets in each region separately, according to the needs of the population who are supposed to elect members of its councils transparently and fairly. There are justifications that the government usually puts forward to justify the removal of trees, such as the need for these removed trees for large amounts of water, amid the country’s water poverty, which requires their disposal. Still, the government did not replace these trees with other trees, nor did it find solutions to conserve water or expand afforestation operations considered necessary.