The president’s decision to pardon some 100 prisoners, most of them convicted under the protest law, is a welcome one. It not only ends an injustice inflicted on them by an unfair law, but speaks to their victory in the battle to defend freedom of expression and peaceful protest.
But questions remain that temper this joy with the bitterness of injustice and concern for those left behind: What will become of others imprisoned under the protest law? What does the pardon mean for the continued enforcement of the law? Most importantly, is this the beginning of a course correction towards a more relaxed political landscape? Or is it the end of the road?
If the pardon is the most the state intends to offer to alleviate political resentments and attract youth to the public sphere again, its impact will be fleeting celebrations and plaudits in Egypt and the world that will quickly fade as things return to the status quo.
But if it’s the beginning of a genuine reconsideration of the state’s stance on rights, liberties, and political participation, it must be followed by additional steps—and they should be swift and decisive to have the intended effect.
The first step is repealing the protest law and initiating a dialogue on the legal framework necessary to regulate and protect the right of peaceful protest in line with international standards and democratic norms.
The current law should never have been issued. It was presented to the public in late 2013 as a necessary means to confront violence, terrorism, and subversion, but its real purpose was to curtail the right to peacefully demonstrate and silence the youth.
It must, therefore, be annulled and replaced with one that complies with the constitution and protects the right of peaceful protest as it protects society from the exploitation of this right to engage in acts of violence, vandalism, or terrorism.
The second step is to pardon all those imprisoned on charges of participating in a peaceful demonstration or for expressing their opinion by any peaceful means. The protest law is a dead letter and has lost credibility, and all those detained under its provisions should not remain in prison.
The third and most difficult step is for the state to build on the positive feelings engendered by the pardon in order to end political tensions and societal divisions and put the country back on a democratic path.
This can’t be achieved all at once and it won’t happen by presidential fiat. It requires genuine will and a clear decision to initiate dialogue with all parties concerned about Egypt’s safety and stability, to review recent laws that restrict civil liberties, lift legal and practical restraints on civil society, parties, and unions, and take a firm stance on media incitement and the spread of hatred and division.
Respect for the constitution and law and for the independence of judiciary must be the watchwords for the coming phase.
The warm reception given the pardon and the celebration of the men and women leaving prison with their heads held high, victorious in their just cause, suggests that society is seeking an end to discord and division and that inflammatory rhetoric is no longer welcome.
Reasonable people in this country realize that Egypt needs a new socio-political consensus to achieve security and stability, defeat terrorism, and prosper economically. And more importantly, they realize that all this is possible without quashing freedoms and closing down the political sphere.
Will we take this chance to turn a new page, or will we be stuck with the status quo?