Cairo - As countries around the world wrestle with how to balance security and civil liberties, Egypt's parliament weighed in Sunday with a vote to extend the country's 25-year-old state of emergency.
Coming a week after terrorist bombings killed at least 18 people in the seaside resort town of Dahab, the two-year extension is "not long when measured against the dangers that threaten us and our future," said Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif.
But critics, who point out thatPresident Hosni Mubarak had said before the bombings that he would extend the law, argue that the law's main purpose is to quell dissent rather than fight terrorism.
"[The authorities] use the emergency law against civilians, ordinary people, opposition parties, political movements," says Hafez Abu Saeda, head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. "The government couldn't run this country without emergency law."
In fact, Mr. Mubarak has governed Egypt under emergency rule since he became president in 1981, after Islamic militants assassinated his predecessor Anwar Sadat.
The law subverts many of the rights enshrined in Egypt's Constitution, such as freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, the right to privacy, and the right to due process. Under it, people can be detained without charges or referred to emergency state security courts, whose verdicts can be appealed only to the president.
"The most abusive use of the emergency law," says Human Rights Watch spokesman Fadi al-Qadi, "has been in the arena of arrests and detentions, with no indictments, with no information on the whereabouts of detainees."
Human Rights Watch estimates that 8,000 to 9,000 people are currently being held without charges by the Egyptian security services, though other human rights organizations put the number as high as 15,000. "This is a category of disappeared persons," says Mr. Qadi.
Hundreds of those now in detention were rounded up after previous terrorist attacks. Since the Dahab bombings, security forces in Egypt's Sinai peninsula have detained dozens of local residents suspected of knowing of, or sympathizing with, the attacks.
"We will never use the emergency law other than to protect the citizens and the security of the nation and combat terrorism," Mr.Nazif said on Sunday. According to Abdel Moneim Said, director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo and a policymaker within the president's party, the government feels it lacks the "ability to deal with terrorism without the emergency law at this moment."
But critics say the best way to deal with extremist violence is a better-trained police force, not extraordinary laws.
"After 25 years of emergency law, the terrorism is the same and the violence is the same," says Amin Iskander, a leftist politician. Since his days as a student activist, Mr. Iskander says he has been detained six times under emergency law.
"The first time they arrested me, they said that I had joined a group to carry out a revolution against the regime," says Mr. Iskander. "Of course it was a lie, so I was released after being tortured."
Human rights groups say the long detention periods allowed by emergency law, in which prisoners have no access to lawyers or relatives, can often lead to the abuse of detainees.
The repeal of emergency law has become a key demand for all of Egypt's opposition groups.
According to a Muslim Brotherhood statement, 75 of its members were detained just last week while campaigning against an extension of the law.And over the weekend, dozens of demonstrators associated with the democracy movement Kifaya, which calls for the abolition of emergency law, were beaten and detained when they tried to hold a rally in Cairo.
As part of a broader push for reform in the Arab world, the US called last year for Egypt to lift the emergency law, which was set to expire in June this year. During Mubarak's 2005 presidential campaign, he promised to repeal the law, and Egyptian officials said they would replace the emergency measures with a new antiterrorism law.
But according to Dr. Said, there is a lack of agreement within the government over the antiterrorism law and over which powers the security forces should relinquish. Mubarak said recently it would take 18 months to two years to write the new law; hence the need to extend emergency rule.
The extension was approved Sunday by Egypt's parliament, which is controlled by the president's party. About 25 percent of the 378 lawmakers in attendance - most of whom were Muslim Brotherhood members - voted against the extension.
In a statement, Mohammed Mursi, the most vocal Muslim Brother parliamentarian, called the vote "a mockery" and accused the government of "disregarding popular demands and defying the will of the nation."
Demonstrators who gathered in downtown Cairo Monday to protest the extension were forced to disperse by plainclothes security officers. Groups of young men under the direction of the officers chased and beat the protestors.
"Is it forbidden to stand in the street now?" Salma, a 20-year-old student activist, yelled at one of the plainclothed security officers forcing demonstrators to leave the area. "Get out of here," he responded, refusing to identify himself.