Egypt’s extension of Emergency Law draws criticism

Egyptian opposition groups bash decision to extend 29-year-old emergency law for another two years.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. AP 311 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. AP 311
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
The Egyptian parliament extended the country’s 29-year-old emergency law for another two years on Tuesday.
The decision drew immediate criticism from foreign governments, opposition groups, dissidents and human-rights organizations which have been working to end emergency rule for almost three decades.
Egypt’s Emergency Law has been in place since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981. It gives the police extensive powers and provides the government with the ability to suspend constitutional rights and restrict political activity. 
While the government defends the law as an anti-terrorism measure and made moves to limit its extraordinary powers, rights groups said such limitations are cosmetic and argue that the law provides for the arrest of political opponents, detention without charge and trials before state security courts which do not allow appeals.
“It violates so many fundamental human rights and it’s not legitimate by international law,” Heba Morayef, a Cairo-based researcher with Human Rights Watch, told The Media Line. “At this stage there are still 5,000 administrative detainees detained under the Emergency Law.”
The move comes at a particularly sensitive time for Egypt, which is heading into both legislative and presidential elections next year. 
Philip Crowley, US assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy said in a press briefing that the State Department was “disappointed” by the move. “We have questions about how this fits with pledges that the government of Egypt has made to its own people to try to find a way to move beyond the emergency law.” 
Egypt has been one of the top recipients of US foreign aid since it signed a peace deal with Israel in 1979. Some in Washington believe that the US should condition its aid to Egypt on greater political reform. 
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The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) said that the new format of the emergency law “still contains aspects that threaten the rights and freedoms for all citizens, without distinction, or limiting measures on the perpetrators of crimes of terrorism.”
“The law retained the establishment of special courts and military courts to try civilians on any of the crimes referred by the President of the Republic,” EOHR said in a statement. “EOHR insists on the need to abolish the state of emergency and return to constitutional legality.”
But Dr. Gamal Soltan, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Egypt, argued that in a larger context the extension should be seen as a positive move. 
“Some credit should be given to the government,” he told The Media Line. “For the first time we have a legal commitment, which became a part of the law, that would limit the applicability of the law to certain crimes related to drug trafficking and terrorism,” he said. “In the past, there was an oral commitment to limit the usage of the law, but now it became part of the law, so it’s a move forward.”
 “The best case scenario would have been new legislation dealing with terrorism and removing all mention of emergency laws altogether, because the mere presence of the words ‘Emergency Law’ is poisoning the public atmosphere,” he continued. “That didn’t happen, but hopefully this will happen soon. In the meantime, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of this new legal commitment to limit the application to terrorism.”
Soltan said the extension of the law is likely to affect the popularity of the ruling NDP party in the upcoming legislative elections, which will have to prove to the voters that the law is not being applied arbitrarily. 
“The renewal of the law puts a burden on the NDP,” he said. “It needs to market the law and demonstrate to the public that it is qualitatively different, even though the measures are still there. It won’t help improve the NDP’s image unless they launch an effective campaign to explain the difference, otherwise it will be used by the opposition to mobilize more support and criticize the NDP.”
 Morayef had a different take on the link between the law and the upcoming elections. 
“It’s not a question of gaining more support,” she said. “Rather, the Emergency Law is used as a tool to crack down on the opposition and it’s a very effective tool. They can define terrorism extremely broadly.”
The law has been applied in frequent crackdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood and other political opponents. Although the arrests are justified by the authorities as a matter of national security, they are construed by critics as being a tool to silence the opposition.