Egypt renews emergency law, but adds safeguards for civil society

Egypt today extended its 30-year emergency law until 2012, keeping it in place for a tenuous election season. It added safeguards intended to protect civil society, but human rights leaders dismissed them as meaningless.

Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Reuters
Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members of parliament protest against the extension of emergency law, in place since 1981, during a parliament session in Cairo, Tuesday. According local media, the government of Egypt has presented to the parliament a bill to extend the country's emergency law until the year 2012. The words on the banners read "No to emergency law".

The Egyptian parliament today extended until 2012 the country’s controversial emergency law, which critics say has stifled civil society. That keeps the 30-year law in effect as Egypt enters a tenuous election period during which the regime seeks to preserve its power.

But in an apparent attempt to placate the international community – particularly the US, which funnels roughly $1.5 billion in foreign aid to Egypt annually – the resolution included legal restrictions intended to safeguard civil rights. According to a government statement, the emergency law will apply solely to combating terrorism and drug trafficking, and would remove the government’s ability to censor publications and monitor “all forms of communication.”

“By law, these provisions and powers in this law will exclusively be used to issues of terrorism and serious drug crimes, so you’ve limited the scope significantly. The second thing that has to be read ... is the reduction of the number of powers,” says Wael Aboulmagd, deputy minister of foreign affairs for the Ministry of Human Rights, who says that while mechanisms such as administrative arrest remain, they are “exclusively” limited to terrorism. “It is a very significant change.”

Critics dismiss new safeguards as 'meaningless'

Civil society leaders and experts on Egyptian politics dismissed the gesture, however. They said the ruling regime would continue to use the law, which has given it expansive powers of arrest, detention, and trial since 1981, to suppress political opposition.

“This is meaningless,” says Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). “It will have zero impact on the human rights situation.”

“The government kept the power of detention, exceptional courts [military courts], unlawful wiretapping of communications, as well as home and body searches... In reality the only [power] that was left out was powers that were not utilized by the Ministry of Interior to start with,” he adds. “The only thing that is different, [is that] this is meant to control the next three elections Egypt will witness.”

The government has previously stated the emergency law only applied to terrorism and drug trafficking, say Mr. Bahgat and Michele Dunne, a former employee at the US Embassy in Cairo.

“This is not a new promise, why would you believe it now?” says Ms. Dunne, now editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin.

Instead, she sees the new amendments as a cautionary move against potential international backlash to the law’s renewal.

Egypt compares its delay to Obama stalling on Gitmo

In a press release, the Egyptian government compared their delay in replacing the emergency law to US President Barack Obama’s inability to close down Guantanamo Bay. Dunne calls that “a pretty transparent effort to get Obama not to criticize Mubarak for this renewal... It’s a new approach on the Egyptian government’s part to try to defend themselves in anticipation of criticism.”

Protesters from various opposition groups gathered outside the parliament holding signs that read: “The Egyptian people are strangled by emergency law.”

“We just will not give up and lose our hope. We are trying to wake up our people because they are afraid,” says Moshira Ahmed, a member of the opposition April 6th youth movement. “People should ask for their rights, they don’t know their rights, [they are] too busy asking for money and work.”


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