The official state of emergency inaugurated by Hosni Mubarak was synonymous with the political repression of his rule. Under what was supposed to be a temporary measure, freedom of expression and human-rights were deferred permanently, to a future which never got any closer.
When the state of emergency was finally lifted in June, it seemed, for all the caveats that attend any summary of the revolution's gains, that one of the revolution's main demands had been met.
The law remained on the statute books, but not in force, and many assumed that it would be abrogated or substantially modified by Parliament. But now, it looks as if a new Emergency Law established solely by presidential decree, may be in the cards.
New Justice Minister Ahmed Mekky, respected for his battles for the independence of the judiciary under Mubarak, has proposed an amendment to the Emergency Law in preparation for the reinstatement of the state of emergency.
While Mekky and his supporters justify the move with reference to the continuing security crisis in Egypt, and an increase in “thuggery,” lawyers and human rights experts reject the proposals, asserting that these problems can be solved using standard laws.
“This is unacceptable, our penal code is enough to stop crime as long as there are correct practices and the arms of justice are functioning well, all we need is for the police to do their job,” says human rights activist Ghada Shahbandar. “And what’s more important is to have the political will to reform, restructure and cleanse the security apparatus.”
She argues that if the demands to reform and restructure the security apparatus corrupted by Mubarak for decades were realized, security would be restored with no need for an Emergency Law.
The state of emergency was first announced in Egypt during the 1967 war. After being removed briefly in 1980, it was reactivated following President Sadat’s murder in 1981 and has been continuously in force since then.
After announcing in January 2012 that the Emergency Law would only be used to combat thuggery, the then-ruling military council allowed the state of emergency to expire for the first time in 30 years in June.
Even though some contend that Mekky’s proposal contains necessary modifications to the current law, most object to the proposal to pass the law by executive decree, in the absence of the Parliament.
After a court ruling dismantled the Parliament, expected to be re-elected by the end of the year, president Mohamed Morsy, who also currently holds legislative power, promised not to use it to pass legislation singlehandedly.
Mekky, however, proposed that a committee of judicial figures be formed to discuss laws, which will then be passed by the president, starting with the Emergency Law.
While he sees the new Emergency Law as an improvement on the old, human rights lawyer Ahmed Ragheb is opposed to the passing of the law by the president.
“Technically, the amendments are better than the old law but there is no immediate need to pass it now. It’s better to pass it through the elected legislative authority. Use of the president’s legislative powers should only be in absolute necessities,” he says.
Unlike the 1958 law, active to date, Mekky’s law differentiates between two states of emergency. In the state of internal troubles that endanger the security of the country, the state of emergency is announced, giving the president the power to order arrests and conduct searches free of the limitations of the penal code, and to impose curfew.
In the case of war, the new law gives the president broader powers: to control publications, evacuate areas and cut down business hours.
The new law would limit the state of emergency to six months, only renewable through a popular referendum, and allows the announcement of the state of emergency in a limited geographical area. It stipulates that those arrested under the Emergency Law are to be tried in regular courts, except in the case of certain specified crimes.
However, the list of exceptions is extensive. The president may refer civilians to a military court for crimes of murder, theft, “thuggery,” obstructing roads or railways, and attacking buildings protected by the military. Since the early days of the revolution, protestors with economic and political demands have been characterized by politicians and courts as “thugs.” Additionally, the obstruction of roads or railways has emerged as an important and powerful tactic for poor Egyptians who have struggled to find alternative means to assert themselves politically. It also allows the president, in times of war, to determine the crimes to be handled in military courts.
Some political figures openly support the return of a state of emergency, including Tarek al-Malt, Wasat Party political bureau member.
“If the amendments will ensure that the law is only used in criminal cases against convicts and people with criminal records and not used to limit freedoms and conduct political arrests, I support the reinstatement of the state of emergency now because of the severe security void and thuggery that we’re witnessing,” says Malt.
Ragheb, however, says that the current situation doesn’t justify the imposition of the state of emergency. He believes that the rush to reinstate the Emergency Law is a result of pressure from the security services, who are used to operating in an atmosphere of impunity.
Mohamed Naeem, a member of the Social Democratic Party, says that granting the police the same privileges that Mubarak gave them under the Emergency Law will hinder the necessary reforms in the institution.
“The direct effect would be that it will not allow the necessary taming of the security apparatus to operate within the constraints of the law,” says Naeem.
The lawyers syndicate also rejected the proposed law at a press conference last Thursday.
“Speaking of an Emergency Law following a revolution is a dangerous first, unprecedented in any of the world’s revolutions,” claimed Ihab al-Khalk, syndicate board member.