Controversial comeback for Egypt’s emergency laws

Activists angry at rights setback, but others say country needs to restore order as angry mobs hold violent, destructive protests throughout Egypt.

By THE MEDIA LINE
September 16, 2011 10:21
Clash at Israel embassy in Cairo

Clash at Israel embassy in Cairo. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Egypt’s Emergency Laws, whose suspension was one of the January 25th revolution’s signal victories, made an unexpected comeback this week – provoking outrage among political activists and human rights groups.

But among ordinary Egyptians, who have coped with months of strikes, crime and violence, many are welcoming the move by Egypt’s transitional military government.

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“I‘ve spoken with my family and the sense from them is that they don’t feel safe anymore,” Reem Ahmed, a 23-year-old journalism student at Cairo University, told The Media Line. “They are worried that protests and clashes could happen at any moment anywhere they go. At the same time they think the military is the right leadership for this future.”

As an activist who participated in the uprising that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak earlier this year, she herself is conflicted. “It’s a tough call, because I know that freedom is not part of the emergency laws, but when a majority of Egyptians support the military, it‘s hard to tell them otherwise,” she said.

Her colleague, Mona Rahman, 22 years old, said she had no doubts. “The military is doing what’s right for Egypt and I will support them in making Egypt safe again,” she told The Media Line.

For the young people who massed at Tahrir Square last January to demand Mubarak’s ouster and democratic reforms, the Emergency Laws are a Bastille of the revolution – an institution that symbolized what was wrong with Egypt. The laws, which allow the summary arrest and detention of citizens without charge and limits freedom of assembly, stopped being enforced after Mubarak’s ouster.

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While officially the Emergency Laws on the books, they were set to expire before November’s parliamentary elections.

But a weekend of violence, culminating in an attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo on Saturday night, prompted the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to revive them. New offenses were added to the list of crimes that can be tried in state security courts, including criminal damage to state property, disrupting people's work, blocking roads by demonstrations, and spreading false news and information.

The government said those arrested in the disturbances would be tried in the state security courts for inciting violence. “What the Egyptian street is currently witnessing is terrorism,” SCAF member Gen. Mamdouh Shaheen said in a television interview.

Among activists, the new laws are anathema. Several of the opposition movements said they are planning a silent million-man protest in Tahrir Square dubbed the "Friday of Deafening Silence" to object to the continuation and the recent amendment of the emergency law.

“If the military thinks they can push us aside as they want it won’t happen. We’ll continue going to the street,” said Asmaa Abdel Khalek, a 32-year-old staffer at a non-governmental organization (NGO) who has participated in most protests since January 25. “We won’t stand by and allow the military to attack our freedom to speak out.”

But Hossam Al-Mokhtar, a 52-year-old carpenter in Giza, where the Israeli Embassy is located, said he saw no choice but to re-impose the laws.  “Crazy mobs” poured through the streets last Friday as hundreds converged on the embassy and attacked a police station nearby, he recalled.

“The military had to do this to make sure all Egyptians are safe and the country is able to move forward toward a better future that sees the revolution completed,” Al-Mokhtar told The Media Line. “What happened was not Egyptian. Our military forces are the only thing protecting this country from chaos.”

However, not everyone in the Egyptian street is convinced that reviving the laws is in the best interest of the country. They argue that by returning the country to martial law, cracking down on media in the country – the Al-Jazeera television network’s Mubashir Egypt office shut down by security forces on Sunday – and silencing opposing views will return the country to the status quo that existed pre-Mubarak.

“This is yet another sign that the military isn’t willing to create a new Egypt. They simply want to maintain power,” Mohsen Abdallah, a 29-year-old account and reform activist, told The Media Line. “Look at the last few months and it’s obvious what the military wants,” he said, pointing to the violent removal of protesters on the first day of Ramadan [August 1] where the military and police attacked and arrested dozens of activists in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

“And it isn’t just street activism, the military is going after anyone who criticizes their actions. It is like Mubarak is still in power,” he said.

Over the past months, SCAF has been summoning bloggers, activists and journalists critical of its actions, highlighting the growing antagonism between activists and the military.

Last month, a number of activists were arrested and charged with inciting violence against the military. While they were ultimately not tried in the controversial military courts, their grievances with SCAF have received a new impetus with the crackdown.

"We all must stand up as journalists and say enough is enough. Our work is too important," Yomna Abdel-Khalek, a reporter with Egypt’s Al-Youm Al-Saba’a daily, told The Media Line. She said she has received warnings from the military, but has no intention of stopping her coverage of human rights or the military’s actions.

“If we stand aside and allow the military to take full control of our work, even as they promote democracy, we will lose,” she said.

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