REPORTING FROM CAIRO -- Egypt’s military ruler attempted to bolster public support Tuesday by partially lifting a reviled 30-year-old emergency law the day before the anniversary of the revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak’s police state.
In a nationally televised address, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi said, “I have taken a decision to end” emergency law. The general quickly noted, however, that the measure would still apply to “thuggery,” a catchall term used to target activists and antigovernment demonstrators.
Tantawi’s timing suggested he was seeking to ease criticism over the army’s grip on power and to defuse potential unrest during Wednesday’s rallies in Tahrir Square to mark the revolution. His remarks also came the day after the inauguration of a freely elected parliament, many of whose Islamist members had been arrested under emergency laws during Mubarak’s rule.
“Egyptians and the armed forces had a clear aim, which is Egypt becoming a democratic country,” Tantawi said in his address. “We've never deviated from the aims of the revolution.”
But activists said the speech was a ruse by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, to divert attention away from the broken promises of the revolution and the military tribunals that since February have tried more than 12,000 civilians. Activists lauded the military takeover last year but that sentiment quickly evaporated.
The law was imposed after the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat. Mubarak widened its scope to crush protests by limiting public gatherings to five people, imprison suspects without hearings and silence opponents by classifying them as enemies of the state, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which now controls 47% of the seats in parliament.
The draconian atmosphere, which included censorship, was a potent symbol of repression; the army expanded martial law last summer to curtail demonstrations.
Despite protests in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, the army is backed by much of the country as the only institution that can ensure order during a transition to democracy. The military has used the media and other propaganda tools to portray activists as foreign-backed rabble-rousers out to spoil the national image.
Tantawi saluted the “martyrs and injured of the revolution” and said the military would cede power once a president is elected in June: “The armed forces will [then] be devoted to its role to protect the nation.”
The speech came as young activists, whose social media skills helped ignite the revolution, are struggling for relevance after poor showings in recent elections and the rise of Islamist parties. In recent months, demonstrators have worn “We Are Thugs” T-shirts to chide the army for depicting protesters as criminals in crackdowns on dissent, which have left dozens of people dead since December.
“It is not a coincidence that Tantawi is abolishing emergency laws now,” said Mohamed Attiya, a member of the Jan. 25 Youth Coalition. “This decision was taken to appease protesters ... [but] I think that it's a conspiracy to frame protesters.”
-- Jeffrey Fleishman. News assistant Amro Hassan contributed.
Photo: Egyptian protesters chant slogans while gathering at Cairo's Tahrir Square on the eve of the first anniversary of the popular uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Credit: Khalil Hamra / Associated Press