The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill 2021, which is currently being discussed in parliament, has provoked major condemnation from rights groups. Its proposals to restrict freedom of demonstration in particular have sparked widespread concerns about the future of human rights in the UK.
The bill aims to limit where protests can take place, citing “noise” as a reason for police intervention if it causes “serious disruption” to an organisation in the vicinity.
The change in the law would give power to the secretary of state to define what constitutes “serious disruption”. Doubts about the government’s impartiality towards certain protest groups make this plan questionable. And among other issues, the legislation would make it an offence for protesters to fail to comply with any condition “they ought to have known”, essentially criminalising people for unknowingly breaching the law.
Drafted in the midst of public outrage over systematic racism and misogyny in the UK, the bill would also introduce new stop-and-search measures and a maximum penalty of ten years in prison for damage to a memorial, such as the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol last year. It would also establish a criminal offence for trespass and introduce new police powers to arrest offenders immediately, which would disproportionately affect Traveller communities.
Amid tighter counter terrorism security, the bill appears to be the latest in a worrying trend where “disturbance to public peace” is given too wide a remit for interpretation. This was made shockingly clear in 2017 when Stansted 15 activists were charged (before being cleared on appeal in January 2021) under terror-related offences for preventing the deportation of 60 asylum seekers.
To understand the repressive potential of the bill’s measures, we can look back at the implementation of similar rules in the past. Looking at how assembly and protest laws have been used to discourage resistance against colonial rule gives us a glimpse of how the social and political marginalisation of certain communities is written into permanent legislation.
One particularly egregious example of this was the introduction of legislation on assembly in Egypt by the British occupying forces in 1914, which continues to be used for mass arrests in Egypt to this day.
Criminalising protest in British occupied Egypt
The British occupation of Egypt lasted from 1882-1956, in various forms. In 1914, Egypt’s Law 10/1914 on Assembly brought the criminalisation of gatherings of more than five people in public. Law 10/1914 on Assembly upheld the concept of “collective liability”, where all participants and organisers of public gatherings were liable for any act committed during assemblies.
Looking into archival records, it’s clear that the wide powers given to police meant that the notion of “disturbance” was informed through colonial understandings of race, class and gender, where Egyptian people were cast as “lawless” and “uncivilised”. Britain’s idea of “threat” justified the creation of a formal system that restricted Egyptians’ access to political participation and expression.
These social and political conceptualisations of “disturbance” were aided by the state of emergency created by the first world war in 1914, in which British martial law gave wide discretion to military authorities. They could apprehend anyone they considered to be “disturbing the public peace, stir(ing) up disaffection, or… aid(ing) the enemies of His Britannic Majesty and His Allies.”
The 1914 assembly law helped to consolidate a collective approach to methods of criminalisation, arrest and punishment. In the lead up to the 1919 Egyptian revolution on 9 March 1919, for instance, a peaceful student protest in Cairo saw hundreds arrested under the assembly law, and some wounded and killed by British machine gun fire. Outraged by the violence, people up and down the country responded by cutting railway line connections and striking.
In the days following, at a sugar factory at Hawamdia, south of Cairo, British soldiers had been stationed to keep guard and prevent people from demonstrating. Citing the nearby cutting of railway lines, soldiers made their way through nine villages along the railway line, stopping at each to carry out attacks. A witness from the village of Nazlet el Shobak said the soldiers burnt 144 houses out of 210, killed 21 people and wounded 12 more, raped many of the women and killed all the animals, according to sources in the UK National Archives.
Testimonies of members of the villages said they had been told this was a “collective punishment” for the people of each village because of the interference to the railway lines.
Normalising repression in the law
Following Egyptian independence in 1922, Egyptian prime minister Adly Yakan Pasha agreed to ask for his party’s approval of the retraction of martial law on the condition that “an Egyptian law is (enacted) giving the government adequate powers to deal with demonstrations and to effect preventive arrests.” This suggests the colonial roots of contemporary law and policy that aim to pre-empt crime.
Soon after this, Law 14/1923 on Meetings and Demonstrations came into force, giving security forces the ability to disperse protesters. An updated version, Law 107/2013 on Protests, is now used in Egypt, which restricts demonstrations in certain locations such as government buildings, and allows the use of water cannons, tear gas, batons and firearms even in a peaceful protest.
Law 10/1914 continues to repress freedom of protest in Egypt today under the rule of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Thousands were arrested under this law during 2011 Egyptian demonstrations. The wide-reaching 2015 anti-terror law has also been used against demonstrators for “infringing the public order”.
British colonial history provides a warning about how contemporary attempts to curtail the right to protest are shaped through the violent treatment of colonial subjects. Looking to the shared history of Britain and Egypt allows us to rethink the law itself as a site of rights, freedoms and emancipation, where it is also equally used as tool to legitimise the curtailment of these and normalise violence. Rather than looking at the British government’s moves to restrict public demonstrations as a standalone act, they should instead be seen as part and parcel of a much more sinister legacy of state repression.
Alice Ella Finden receives funding from UKRI Economic and Social Research Council.