By Ahmad Shihadah
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East
CAIRO, Egypt – The Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has issued a decree renewing the country’s emergency laws for a further two years.
Parliament approved the law while opponents protested outside amid rows of riot police. The government sought to defuse criticism by emphasizing that the measure would cover only terrorism and drug-related crimes. But critics accused authorities of making cosmetic changes to a 29-year-old system that gives police sweeping discretionary powers against political opponents.
The decision has led to criticism from political opponents and human rights groups, who say the laws stifle political freedom in the country.
“The new law is very ambiguous and can easily be manipulated,” said Hafez abu Seada, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. “The law still persecutes freedoms like gathering in public, which doesn’t fall under terrorism. We will also still have military tribunals and the government’s right to issue military orders.”
Extension of the emergency law, which was passed in 1981 after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, comes as the government is under widespread pressure. Public anger is high, protests over low wages and for constitutional revisions are increasing, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei is enlivening the opposition with his new National Front for Change.
President Hosni Mubarak, 82 and in frail health, has yet to strike the right tone or inspire policies to calm the furor. Renewing the emergency law, but narrowing its powers, allows the ruling National Democratic Party to claim support for press freedom and human rights while simultaneously keeping mechanisms in place to combat dissent before this year’s parliamentary elections.
“We do not deny that we still have issues, but we are working to resolve them,” said Moufid Shehab, minister of state for legal and parliamentary affairs, acknowledging violations of civil liberties under the emergency law. “We aspire to one day have an end to emergency law.”
Shehab said the two-year extension, which passed by a wide majority, was needed to counter terrorism. He suggested that cases against bloggers and activists who have been jailed in recent years under the act for crimes unrelated to terrorism may be reviewed. The extension also will prohibit security forces from shutting newspapers and confiscating property. But security forces can still rely on an array of other laws to silence critics.
Shebab said the new emergency law means: “No trial, no indictment unless it’s a terrorist act.”
The government had promised to repeal the emergency law once it passed an anti-terrorism act, which has been bottled up in parliament for years. Emergency law has allowed authorities to detain suspects for long periods without formal charges. It has been used frequently against members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other opponents of the regime, many of whom have been tortured.
The opposition fears the law will be used to crack down on regime opponents ahead of parliamentary elections later this year. Egypt is also to hold presidential elections in 2011.
For more information, please see:
ABC – Egypt Extends Controversial Emergency Law – 12 May 2010
BBC – Egypt Renews Tough Emergency Laws – 12 May 2010
LA Times – Egypt Extends Emergency Rule – 12 May 2010