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Egyptian Opposition Protests Renewal of Emergency Law

Published on Thursday 3rd June 2010

The government's decision to renew Egypt's longstanding Emergency Law has drawn furious reactions from opposition figures and rights advocates.

While government spokesmen say the law will only be used against terrorism and drug trafficking, critics say it is aimed primarily at stifling political dissent.

Egypt voted in elections to the upper house of its parliament Tuesday with many denied the right to contest because of the Emergency Law.

"Every society faces the threat of terrorism and drug trafficking," Atef Al- Banna, professor of constitutional law at Cairo University, told IPS. "To combat these crimes, security agencies should rely on their crime fighting skills and experience, not on a nationwide state of emergency."

On May 11, Egypt's parliament, which is dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) of President Hosni Mubarak, approved the extension of the Emergency Law by another two years. The 29-year-old law, first declared following the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, gives the state wide-ranging powers of arrest and detention without charge.

"The Emergency Law allows authorities to arrest and detain suspects for up to 90 days without charge or trial," explained Al-Banna. "When the 90 days are up, suspects are often released on paper only to be re-arrested the same day, meaning that detention without charge can be prolonged indefinitely."

Fully aware of the law's unpopularity, government officials hastened to stress that the law would only be employed to combat terrorism and drug trafficking.

"The government has promised this time that the application of emergency powers will be restricted to terrorist and drug-trafficking crimes," read a report issued by ruling party MPs in defence of the extension. "It has also promised that procedures fall completely under judicial supervision."

The report went on to justify the move by citing "new factors" to have emerged in recent years, including "terrorist acts and regional conflicts".

But despite these assurances and justifications, critics have been quick to denounce the extension, warning of its potentially dire effects on citizens' basic rights.

"In the case of crimes deemed a threat to national security or public order, the Emergency Law allows the security apparatus to take certain pre-emptive measures," said Al-Banna. "Although the penal code requires that security agencies first obtain permission from the public attorney for these measures, the Emergency Law effectively does away with the need for judicial permission.

"The law constitutes a threat to the rights and freedoms of every citizen by allowing authorities to arrest anyone they want, especially those that write editorials critical of the government or participate in political demonstrations," he added. "And this threat tends to escalate in advance of elections."

Egypt is currently bracing for two more major national elections following elections for the Shura Council (the upper house of parliament) Tuesday: elections for the People's Assembly (the lower house of parliament) in October; and presidential elections slated for next year.

Widespread apathy marked the Shura elections, with people resigned to NDP dominance. The next two elections are also expected to be dominated by NDP candidates.

Political analyst Fahmi Howeidy points out that the interior ministry has ordered the arrest of all opposition Shura Council candidates found to be using electoral slogans of a religious nature. The Muslim Brotherhood - which controls roughly a fifth of the seats in parliament, making it Egypt's largest opposition movement - is known for using the electoral slogan "Islam is the solution".

"Using the law to threaten opposition candidates with arrest reveals the large gap between the official reason for the law's extension - terrorism and drug trafficking - and its practical application," Howeidy wrote.

Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Essam Al-Arian likewise pointed to the obvious disconnect between theory and practice, noting the recent arrest of several supporters of the Brotherhood's Shura Council candidates under the Emergency Law.

"The government flunked the first test with the arrest of our candidates' supporters," Al-Arian told IPS. "This proves the government's insincerity when it says the law will only be applied in cases of terrorism and drug trafficking."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called on Mubarak to fulfill a 2005 electoral promise to replace the law with permanent anti-terrorism legislation. "This extension is regrettable, given the pledge made by the government to the Egyptian people in 2005," Clinton said.

According to Al-Banna, there is no legal justification for either the Emergency Law or new anti-terrorism legislation, "since Egypt's penal code already contains adequate provisions for dealing with both terrorism and drug trafficking, both of which are potentially capital offences."

Al-Banna went on to point out that, according to Egypt's constitution, emergency powers can only be declared in a state of war; under the threat of war; in the case of natural or unnatural disasters; or in the case of serious public disturbance.

"Egypt isn't currently suffering from any of these," he said, noting that, in most other countries, "if a state of emergency is declared, it is never extended beyond two weeks or a month at the most."

Opposition figures complain that Egypt's longstanding state of political stagnation under the Mubarak regime is largely attributable to the oppressive law.

"The Emergency Law has killed Egyptian political life," said Al-Arian. "Its primary objective is to maintain the alliance between dictatorship and corruption, which has led to the political and economic deterioration of the country."

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