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EGYPT: A long and curious state of emergency

May 22, 2008 |  8:48 am


In less than 10 days, Egypt’s 27-year-old state of emergency, which gives the police absolute authority to arrest and detain, is expected to expire.

The state of emergency dates to the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat. Human rights advocates complain that the emergency law has become a convenient tool for crushing political opponents. However, President Hosni Mubarak’s regime insists that it is only there to fight terrorists and drug dealers.

A hot debate is going on: If the government allows the law to expire, will Egypt’s record on human rights improve? Human rights activists are skeptical.

The skepticism stems from the fact that the ruling party is believed to be drafting an anti-terrorism act that is expected to become effective the minute the state of emergency is lifted. It is widely believed that the legislation would entail the same measures.  However, the details of the legislation have not been announced.

Human rights groups have been warning against further attempts to encroach on civil liberties. “Egyptian [human rights] organizations affirm [their] full rejection of using terrorism as a scarecrow to bestow legitimacy on the renewal of the state of emergency one more time or on the promulgation of [an] anti-terror act that would turn the theoretically temporary state of emergency into a perpetual status quo,” read a statement released by a number of human rights advocacy groups last week.

Even the state-sponsored National Council for Human rights seems to share the same concern. "Nothing any longer justifies the extension of the state of emergency, all the more so as Egypt is experiencing a period of stability," said a statement released by the council earlier this week.

Under the state of emergency, thousands are allegedly detained without charges, the executive has absolute authority to refer civilians to exceptional courts, demonstrations are not allowed and freedom of expression is not guaranteed. In late May 2006, Mubarak renewed the state of emergency for two years.

—Noha El-Hennawy in Cairo

Photo: Riot Police clashing with demonstrators in Cairo (BBC)