Egypt’s new draft terrorism laws are “exceedingly vague and overly broad” and must be revised to “to protect the right to life and other rights and freedoms” according to a Sunday statement by watchdog group Human Rights Watch.
The draft laws in question were sent to the Ministry of Justice for approval by interim President Adly Mansour on 14 April, and if approved, would provide the Egyptian security apparatus with wider powers to arrest, detain and use force against suspected terrorists.
“Terrorist attacks are clearly a serious security threat in today’s Egypt, but trampling on fundamental rights won’t make the country safer,” said Human Rights Watch deputy Middle East and North Africa Director Joe Stork. “Respect for human rights needs to be at the heart of the battle against terrorism.”
Earlier this month, the cabinet amended articles of the Penal Code and Criminal Procedures Law, putting in place harsher punishments for crimes relating to terrorism. The council of ministers amended Article 86 of the code to state that joining a “terrorist organisation” is a crime punishable by a maximum of 10 years in prison, as well as for those who “promote” terrorism through speech, text, flyers or recordings.
The cabinet added to Penal Code Article 63. The draft article exempts the official executing an arrest from accountability should he use force “in carrying out his duty, in protecting himself, others, or their property from imminent danger,” if his use of force is “necessary and proportionate to the danger faced”.
Article 133 was amended in a manner which maximises the punishment for insulting (through signs or speech) or threatening any public official. Such a crime is now punishable by a maximum of two years in prison, instead of six months in prison, or an EGP 10,000 fine, instead of an EGP 200 fine.
An additional draft law would allow prisoners to be held for up to 72 hours, at which point their detention could be extended for an additional week.
According to Humans Rights Watch, the changes to the law could classify labour strikes and peaceful protests as terrorism if they hinder “the work of public officials, or universities, mosques, embassies, or international institutions”.
“By these definitions, anyone who participated in the popular uprisings of 2011 or 2013 could be branded a terrorist. Peaceful protest should not be criminalised as terrorism,” said Stork.
The draft laws have also been criticised by rights group Amnesty International, which said they “give the Egyptian authorities increased powers to muzzle freedom of expression and imprison opponents and critics,” and limit “the right to free expression…and expands the scope of application of the death penalty”.
Egypt has faced a rash of bombing and attacks on security forces that have increased since the 3 July ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. On 24 January, a large explosion hit the Cairo security directorate, killing 4, injuring 76, and destroying the façade and many artefacts in the Museum of Islamic Art across the street.
Sinai-based militant group Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis claimed responsibility for the attack along with two other bombings that took place in different parts of Cairo on the same day.
In April, Egypt, the United States and the United Kingdom all officially designated Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis a terrorist group.