CAIRO: The Egyptian government championed the new version of the emergency law recently passed through parliament while the opposition derided it as cosmetic change which would not change facts on the ground.
The emergency law was extended for two years in a parliamentary vote Tuesday after a presidential decree was released calling for the extension until May 31, 2012.
Four articles were omitted from the new version of the law as the government sought to restrict its use for cases of terrorism (and the funding of terrorism) and the trafficking of narcotics.
In the suspicion of these cases, authorities are given wide-ranging powers that include search and arrest and detainment without charge for a period of 15 days. According to the decree, what remained in effect were points 1 and 5 of Article 3 of the emergency law.
The government has championed these changes as a sign of democratic progress, as the emergency law — consistently in place for 28 years — has long been criticized as an indication of the authoritarian nature of the regime.
Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif told parliament before the law was passed, “The government … commits itself … not to use the extraordinary measures made available under the emergency law except to confront the threat of terrorism and narcotics.”
Assistant Foreign Minister for Human Rights Affairs Wael Aboul Magd said in a press conference Tuesday (in which recordings and pictures were not permitted) that the best way forward was “to limit the scope of the emergency law.”
“The government is fully committed to ending the emergency law,” he added, stating that “this is the first ever amendment of the law that goes to the substance of the law; it limits the scope and the powers given.”
MP from the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) Mohamed Khalil Kwaiteh told Daily News Egypt Wednesday, “There have been great improvements to the law; you can say the state of emergency has been canceled except for cases of terrorism and narcotics.”
Yet, opposition in Egypt has not been placated. During the parliamentary session in which the law was passed, with 308 of the 454 members in favor, opposition MPs severely criticized the extension. A total of 103 MPs voted against the renewal. Outside the People’s Assembly a protest took place against the renewal.
Independent MP Gamal Zahran told Daily News Egypt that the changes to the emergency law were cosmetic and that it didn’t differ under its current guise.
“What matters is that it still affects events on the ground. They pulled back on the surface, but the substance is the same,” he said.
“They said it would be restricted to terrorism and narcotics four years ago. They say it won’t be used for demonstrations and protests, but I don’t believe it. The emergency law is being used to stifle dissent and is the biggest barrier for democratic reform,” he added.
There is also the issue of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members feel they will still be targeted under the pretext of combating terrorism. The Brotherhood is officially a banned group, but has a parliamentary presence nevertheless.
Brotherhood MP Hisham AlKady told Daily News Egypt, “We do not support terrorism nor are we in the drugs trade, yet the state of emergency is constantly used against the opposition. They say there is freedom and democracy; this can only happen if a state of emergency is not in effect.”
Asked about the Muslim Brotherhood in the press conference, Aboul Magd said, “Can the membership of a banned group be [considered] an act of terror? That’s for the courts to decide.”
Head of the National Coalition for Change Mohamed ElBaradei said in an interview with a German newspaper that Egypt was a one party country (referring to the NDP) and that the president had unlimited powers and that citizens could not elect their officials.
AlKady said, “They say the emergency is an exceptional state, but can it be for 30 years? It has to be used in an exceptional circumstance; there is no justification for it. Police officers need only suspect you for you to be taken in.”
Kwaiteh said, “The opposition is just opposed for the sake of opposing. We want to keep the security and stability of this country in an area of tension and terrorism.”
After the renewal of the law was passed, parliament speaker Ahmed Fathi Sorour announced that the thousands of prisoners in Egyptian jails being held under the emergency law would be released from June when the new amendments to the law take effect.
Sorour added that the presidential decree meant that all those incarcerated under the previous version of the law who are not being held for cases of terrorism or narcotics would be considered released.
The emergency law was initially established in 1958. Egypt has been in a continuous state of emergency since the presidential “temporary decree” number 560 of 1981.
Zahran said, “The regime is addicted to the emergency law and cannot handle the repercussions of freedom and democracy. The constitution says that the state of emergency is only for incidents of war and natural disasters and should be removed afterwards, so what’s their justification for keeping it?”
The US announced that it was disappointed with the extension of the emergency law. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, “We call on the Egyptian government to fulfill its pledge to the Egyptian people to replace the emergency law with a counterterrorism law that protects the civil liberties and dignity of Egyptian citizen.”
US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said, “We have questions about how this fits with pledges the government of Egypt has made to its own people, to try to find a way to move beyond the emergency law.”
In response, Egypt’s foreign minister dismissed US criticism of Cairo’s decision to extend its three-decade-old emergency law as "overly politicized."
Ahmed Aboul Gheit said the US stance reflects an ignorance of the "real situation" in Egypt. He said Wednesday that the US criticism was aimed for an audience of Western media and rights groups. – With agencies.