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Egypt's Activists Battle Anti-Protest Law — And Protest Fatigue


Two presidents of Egypt have been ousted after often violent street demonstrations since the Arab Spring, but a law passed in November now bans any protest that is not sanctioned by the Egyptian government as part of the broad crackdown on the dissent there, and thousands have been arrested. Many remain in jail.

Today activists are calling for a rally which does not have police permission to protest the law at the Presidential Palace. Merrit Kennedy reports they face an uphill battle against not only the crackdown, but also protest fatigue.

MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: Tarek Tito is a fast talking law student with head phones slung around his neck. He was released earlier this month after more than two months in jail.

TAREK TITO: (Foreign language spoken).

KENNEDY: After police arrested him at a protest, he says he was beaten and subjected to electric shocks. At the police station, he was crammed in a tiny 10 by 10 foot cell with 50 other people. He was then accused of belonging to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood movement.

TITO: (Foreign language spoken).

KENNEDY: But this wasn't his first time behind bars. Last year, it was the former Islamist government that arrested him at a protest and accused him of attacking the Muslim Brotherhood's headquarters. That case is still pending. So it might seem contradictory to be on the wrong side of both the new government and the old government that it forced out.

TITO: (Through translator) We all laughed at this. It just represented the oppression and tyranny of the past three years. This was a scandal for the regime.

KENNEDY: After sitting in detention for 67 days, Tito was acquitted earlier this month, but he hasn't stopped protesting. This week, he was at a small sit in outside the Presidential Palace. A few dozen people were demonstrating against the government's controversial protest law. That's the law that the current government has used to arrest Tito and thousands of other. They include the husband of Nourhan Hefzy, who organized this sit in as a build up to today's planned march. Her husband remains in jail on a three year sentence.

NOURHAN HEFZY: (Through translator) The act of peaceful protesting is not a gift from the state. It is our right, and the state does not have the authority to take it away. But this is what the law did.

KENNEDY: Amnesty International call the law a serious set-back to human rights. It says it allows the police and military to use excessive and lethal force to break up demonstrations. The government, though, says the law is necessary in its war against terrorism. Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University, says it's had a chilling effect on dissent.

NATHAN BROWN: I think right now the number of people who are interested in protesting, public demonstration, a normal political activity, has gotten to be very, very small and is now restricted really to the core opposition to the regime.

KENNEDY: Now, he says, people who criticize the government are routinely branded as traders by the public and the media. After three years on a political roller coaster, many Egyptians are just tired of the instability. On a busy street of car parts and auto repair shops in downtown Cairo, people are happy to be back to a normal routine. Saber Khalaf, a car mechanic here, enthusiastically supports the protest law. He says it's necessary to keep things under control.

SABER KHALAF: (Foreign language spoken).

KENNEDY: Khalaf says he had very little work during the last three years and blamed the protests which often became violent. Now he says business is finally improving.

KHALAF: (Foreign language spoken).

KENNEDY: Others nearby agree with him, saying the protest wrecked Cairo's vital tourist economy. A few blocks away is Tahrir Square. The images of Tahrir packed with protesters are iconic. Usually traffic flows through it normally now. Yesterday during a public holiday, the military sealed it off with a ring of soldiers and armored personnel carriers to prevent demonstrations. The Square was completely empty. For NPR news, I'm Merrit Kennedy in Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.