CAIRO: The partial lifting of Egypt’s decades-old state of emergency has been met with a frosty reception by experts and rights groups, for whom the move is cosmetic and leaves the door open to further abuses.
The country’s military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi on Tuesday announced the end of the controversial law — which gave police wide powers of arrest and suspended constitutional rights — except in cases of fighting "thuggery."
The move, which came into force on Wednesday, exactly a year after Egyptians took to the streets to oust veteran president Hosni Mubarak, was apparently designed to placate protesters.
Tens of thousands thronged Tahrir Square, the epicenter of anti-regime protests, some of them demanding the departure of the ruling military council that took over when Mubarak quit, and whom they accuse of being as repressive as the old regime.
The timing of the announcement was "very political," according to Hassan Nafaa, a columnist and professor of political science.
The term used (which in Arabic translates as "thugs" or "troublemakers") is "very imprecise legally speaking, and this may affect the scope of the decision," he told AFP.
Human Rights Watch strongly criticized the announcement, made in a short televised address, saying the decision to only partially scrap the law was "an invitation to continued abuse" and the stifling of freedoms.
"Military leaders have frequently described protesters as ‘thugs’ and military tribunals have convicted peaceful protesters after unfair trials for the crime of ‘thuggery’," said Joe Stork, HRW’s deputy Middle East director.
"January 25 is the first anniversary of the day when Egyptians stood up together to demand an end to police abuse and the state of emergency," Stork said. "It is an insult to all those calling for a return to the rule of law to make excuses to keep this state of emergency, used abusively for so many years, in place."
Hossam Bahgat, Director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), said that, in effect, the state of emergency had not been lifted.
The vague term thuggery "is now being instrumentalized," he told AFP. "It will allow police to use their powers to search and detain anyone suspected of being a thug. ‘Thuggery’ does not refer to any recognizable criminal offence."
The announcement also represents a "challenge" for the new parliament, which held its first session on Monday and which the army said it would transfer legislative power to, said Bahgat, who called on MPs to "press for a return to ordinary laws."
For decades, Egypt’s state of emergency was used to justify the suppression of Islamist groups, who now dominate the assembly and who have long called for its abolition.
Egyptians have been living under emergency law continuously since Islamists assassinated president Anwar Sadat in 1981 and Mubarak took power. Lifting the law was one of the key demands of the protesters who toppled Mubarak last February.
The military leaders who succeeded him initially promised that the law would be lifted ahead of the parliamentary elections that have just been held, then suggesting it would remain in force until June, when presidential polls are due.
In 2010, Mubarak had restricted the scope of the law to narcotics and terrorism. But last September, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) widened it to include strikes, traffic disruption and the spreading of rumors.
The United States, which has repeatedly called for an end to the state of emergency, welcomed Tantawi’s announcement, and the decision to hand power to parliament a day earlier as "historic milestones" in Egypt’s transition to democracy.
But a State Department spokeswomen said Washington was still seeking clarification of "a little footnote," in reference to the caveat that the law could still be applied in cases of "thuggery."