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The Egyptian government has passed a so-called “limited version” of the unpopular Emergency Law. But critics see the move as little more than a cosmetic change.
Government spokespeople insist the law will only apply to cases of terrorism and drug trafficking, but opposition figures and right activists fear otherwise.
“The Interior Ministry has never abided by the rules of the Emergency Law," said Adel Ramadan, a lawyer with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. "I seriously doubt it will abide by them in their 'limited' form.”
Many rights advocates see scant difference between the “limited" version and the original law.
“The state of emergency transcends all branches of government, including the legislative and judiciary,” said Hafez Abu Saeda, head of the Cairo-based Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. "Moreover, any recent modifications to the law can be easily undone with a military decision."
In case of transgressions in the law's application, the State Security Code (SSC) will mediate the dispute. “The SSC won't act as a fair judge, which makes the law's implications uncertain,” Abu Saeda told Al-Masry Al-Youm.
If the government is serious about limiting the law's use, it should fulfill its promise to release detainees that have languished in jail for years under the name of the emergency law, say critics. Security forces have routinely disregarded court orders for the release of such detainees, usually renewing their detention even in the absence of criminal charges.
“There are hundreds of people detained with no legal justification under the umbrella of the Emergency Law,” said Ramadan.
He went on to say that Egyptian NGOs devoted to civil rights were waiting until June to see whether or not detainees would be released. If they were not, these NGOs plan to raise lawsuits in court.
According to one such NGO, arbitrary arrest and detention--without charge or trial and in flagrant breach of court orders--have become policy under the Emergency Law.
Lawyers see the law's modified articles as insignificant, while those giving the state the right to ban freedom of expression and detain suspected "terrorists"--an ambiguous term under Egyptian law--have remained unchanged.
An 11 May government statement noted that the modified law removes some of the sweeping powers granted the government under Article 3 of the older version, such as the right to conduct telephone surveillance, censor the media, shut down publishing houses and broadcasters, confiscate property, and tightly control the use of public space.
The new version of the law also extends government powers related specifically to terrorism and narcotics trafficking to include the authority to arrest, search and detain suspects, and confiscate weapons.
It is widely believed that international and local public opinion are the main reasons for what critics call the law's “cosmetic changes.”
During the most recent review of Egypt’s human rights record by the Human Rights Council, the government stated that it would not extend the state of emergency this year. “For this reason, it needed to improve its image,” said Ramadan.
States of emergency have been declared in other countries, but have not lasted as long as they have in Egypt, Syria and Algeria. In countries such as Britain, France and Germany, states of emergency can only be declared for short periods, and only in cases of natural disasters or wars.
“The Egyptian regime is afraid that it won't be able to function without the full authority granted it by the Emergency Law,” said Ramadan.
The law was officially extended on Wednesday. The move was approved by the People’s Assembly, with 308 MPs in favor and 101 against. More than two thirds of parliament are controlled by the ruling National Democratic Party and can therefore be counted upon to support all government initiatives.