CAIRO: Egypt’s opposition groups are responding skeptically to an announcement made by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif this week that the government will lift the 25-year-old Emergency Law. Highly condemned for its authorization of sweeping arrests and detentions by Egyptian national security, the legislation came in force following the assassination of President Anwar El-Sadat.
Nazif says the government is instead planning to draft a new anti-terrorism law following the nation’s recent bout with deadly attacks. A committee has been established, under the auspice of the Prime Minister, to formulate a bill suitable for Egypt but modeled after similar laws in the United States and United Kingdom. “There is a priority to making this country safe and stable, Nazif said earlier this week at Egypt’s International Economic Forum. The only reason we have a state of emergency in place is to make sure that we can combat terrorism. This country has been and still is on the front line in the war against terror.
“Traditionally, every time the state of emergency was lifted, parts of the powers given to the executive were passed into normal legislation, explains Gasser Abdel-Razek, an activist with the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR). “This time it s not any different. They will lift the state of emergency and introduce an anti-terrorism legislation that will most probably incorporate all the powers the security apparatus needs to detain people for long periods without trial. In general, the Egyptian constitution, drafted in 1971, grants overwhelming power to the president, who has the authority to appoint the prime minister, one or more vice presidents, the entire cabinet and governors for each governorate. The constitution also declares that cases involving terrorism and national security may be tried in military or State Security Emergency courts. Emergency Law No. 162 of 1958, last enforced in October 1981, was due to expire in May 2003. A measure was passed months before its expiration to extend the law until May 2006. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) scrapped an idea to cancel the Emergency Law in 2002. NDP Secretary General Safwat Sherif told the press following the party’s annual convention that terminating the law was not a priority, as it might undermine “the security of the nation and its citizens. Sherif added that such a law is necessary given the absence of laws. “The president, in his election platform, called for drafting of an anti-terrorism law to replace the application of the state of emergency, notes Mohammed Kamal, a member of the influential policies secretariat. “The party has formed a committee to study a new anti-terrorism law. It’s not going to be as general and wide in scope as the emergency law. Critics say the liberties of Egyptian citizens will be equally stifled by laws looking to combat terrorism. In the United States, the controversial Patriot Act of 2001 gives the Department of Homeland Security authorization to enhance surveillance over a number of civil liberties, as well as enhanced presidential power and the government’s right to search and seizure. Similarly, Egypt’s emergency law provides national security with the absolute right to detain suspects for months at a time, often without granting due process. “If you walk in the street, anyone can demand your ID, they can take you to the police station, not tell you why and make you stay there for a week, says George Ishaq, head of Kefaya, a secular opposition movement. “We don’t need anti-terrorism laws. They will just look to put an article that limits the opposition. “What I’m afraid of is they will replace the state of emergency with a legalized law of emergency, adds Amr Darrag, a Cairo University professor and spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood. “The difference is terrorism laws are permanent. Experts agree that it is unlikely the Emergency Law, due to expire this May, will in fact be lifted anytime soon, though many believe it will not be extended for the customary three-year period. Rather, analysts say it will be enforced as a security blanket until a proper anti-terrorism law is in place. “They would have to act soon if they’re going to change the law, says Mohammed El-Sayed Said, deputy director of the government-backed Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “What they probably will do is renew the law for one year and once they get what they want, they will shift to the new law. But we never know because they are very slow and far from transparent when it comes to this. “What we need is a real debate on the topic, where everyone gets involved; judges, lawyers, professors, security, political parties and NGOs, suggests Abdel-Razek. “I d rather they keep it in place for another six months to a year and have a proper discussion on the anti-terrorism legislation rather than lift it now, and hastily introduce a new anti-terrorism bill.