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Egyptians Hit Streets, Defying Protest Ban


A new political storm is brewing in Egypt. It's over a law that bans unauthorized protest. Egyptian officials are taking to the airwaves to defend the law, in the face of fierce opposition from secular political activists. NPR's Leila Fadel reports from Cairo.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: A few hundred people rallied in downtown Cairo today, chanting - let's start the revolution again. The numbers were bigger today, after police responded with force to a similar demonstration yesterday, arresting a veritable who's who of female revolutionary activists in Cairo, along with dozens of others. Twenty-four men were remanded in custody for breaking the protest law. And today, arrest warrants were issued for two youth activists who played key leadership roles in the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak's regime.

The mother of one of those activists, Laila Soueif, joined Wednesday's protest. Her daughter, Mona, was among the women who were beaten and briefly detained yesterday. They were then driven outside the capital and left on the side of a desert highway.

LAILA SOUEIF: We're all angry at the whole situation. Not just that these young men are in custody, but the way, you know, every time we try to get rid of an authoritarian regime, we just end up with another one.

FADEL: This isn't the first time her son faces jail time.

SOUEIF: Well, every government that's arrested my son has fallen a few months later. So, you know, maybe it's a good thing.

FADEL: The police response to these latest protests has included violence but nothing on the scale of the crackdown on Islamist supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi. More than 1,000 of them have been killed since August. In a courtroom in the coastal city of Alexandria today, 14 women were sentenced to long prison terms for protesting in support of Morsi.

But in solidarity with today's largely secular protesters, several members of the 50-member assembly tasked with amending the constitution briefly suspended their participation, as the government went on the defensive over the new protest law. Information Minister Dorreya Sharaf el-Din warned at a Cairo press conference that Egypt's security is at risk.

DORREYA SHARAF EL-DIN: (Through translator) The Egyptian government will not back down on this law and the strict enforcement of all of its articles. Without its application, the street and perhaps the country will be lost.

FADEL: The protest law bans gatherings of 10 or more people in public spaces without prior permission from the police. Human rights groups say it gives the state free rein to use force against protesters. British-Egyptian filmmaker and activist Omar Robert Hamilton says the recent crackdown on secular protesters was an eye-opener for people who were just fine with the repression of Islamists.

OMAR ROBERT HAMILTON: This is a clear difference that we're seeing.

FADEL: Hamilton says that since Morsi's toppling, veteran revolutionary activists like himself have been sidelined.

HAMILTON: This group and this wing of the revolution has always been the central ideological driving force of the revolution, and it was just knocked out of the game once the army started massacring people in July.

FADEL: But now, he says, we're back. But as today's protest continued, merchants nearby shook their heads. The protest ban is just fine with Fadi Adel, who sells dresses at a store in downtown Cairo.

FADI ADEL: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Protests, he says, are just bad for business. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.