Egypt's military lifts emergency law – with one big loophole

On the eve of the Egyptian revolution anniversary, military leader Hussein Tantawi said the hated emergency law – a key tool of repression – would be lifted except in cases of 'thuggery.'

Egypt TV via Reuters/Reuters
Head of Egypt's ruling military council Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi speaks during a televised address in Cairo, in this still image taken from video Tuesday. Tantawi said on Tuesday the state of emergency law would be lifted except in cases of 'thuggery.'

Egypt's military ruler announced yesterday that he would lift Egypt’s hated emergency law – except in cases of "thuggery," which rights activists say leaves a loophole for police to continue to use exceptional powers to arrest and detain civilians without cause.

Ending the three-decade-long state of emergency that was a tool of repression for former President Hosni Mubarak was a main demand of the uprising that began a year ago today and swept him from power just 18 days later. It gives police broad powers to arrest and indefinitely detain without warrants, makes gatherings illegal, and allows civilians to be tried in exceptional courts. It was often used to arrest and detain members and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood is now the single most powerful political force in Egypt, and controls a plurality of seats in the new parliament. But the Islamist movement has signaled that it will not confront the military on this issue, with one leader saying today that martial law is still necessary to maintain law and order in Egypt's post-Mubarak transition.

Just what is 'thuggery'?

Rights activists said that Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi's announcement yesterday echoed Mubarak’s declaration in 2010 that the emergency law would only be applied in cases of terrorism and drug trafficking. That promise was routinely violated, as police continued to use the law to arrest and detain anyone it chose.

“For us the state of emergency has not been lifted,” says Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “Police were not deprived of wide-ranging powers to stop, search, and detain anyone without a judicial warrant. On the ground, this will mean very little.”  

He pointed out that “thuggery” is a vague and broad term that was not defined by Tantawi. The term has been used repeatedly by the military over the past year to discredit political protesters and activists.

But Essam El Erian, a leader of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, calls Tantawi’s announcement a “good step” that was long overdue. He did not have qualms with Tantawi’s exception.

“We agree to continue the martial state against thuggery, to have some conditions and also to have authority for the police and for the armed forces to arrest any thugs,” he says. He added that parliament would monitor the use of the law, to make sure that it was not used incorrectly.

Rights activists say Egypt has adequate criminal laws to deal with those who commit acts of violence. But Mr. Erian says the emergency law was needed to deal with “thugs.”

“They are not ordinary criminals. Thuggery is something else, and we are going to discuss in the parliament how can we define thuggery, how can we approve such condition,” he says. He defined “thuggery” as using fire, Molotov cocktails, and guns.

Playing on public's concerns about rising criminality

Bahgat says the announcement is a “clever public relations move” before planned protests against the military today, the one-year anniversary of the start of Egypt’s uprising, that “gives the impression that things have changed, while exploiting people’s concern for law and order and a perceived rise in criminality, which could lead them to tolerate this.”

Despite the announcement, thousands of people marched to Tahrir Square today to demand the end of military rule. The military has promised to hand over power to a civilian president after elections in June, but many activists have demanded a quicker timetable.

The Brotherhood, however, has backed down on initial pledges to confront the military council once it took its place in parliament.

Earlier this week the military council also announced that it had pardoned nearly 2,000 civilians who had been tried in military tribunals last year. One of them was Maikel Nabil Sanad, a blogger who was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison, which was later changed to two years, for criticizing the military on his blog. He was released Tuesday.

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