State of Emergency Extended in Egypt

Autocrat in Dire Straits

During his election campaign, President Mubarak had pledged to revoke the state of emergency and replace it with anti-terrorism legislation. Instead, it has now been extended for the second time. Information from Jürgen Stryjak in Cairo

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak (photo: dpa)
The state of emergency as a permanent condition: The country has been under a state of emergency since ex-president Sadat's assassination in 1981

​​Even the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights, closely linked to the state and under the leadership of the former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali had spoken out in favour of ending the state of emergency. There was nothing to justify it, the council declared only days before the extension was whipped through parliament. It continued – "especially as the country is currently experiencing a period of stability."

Severe rioting

The Mubarak regime appears to have a deep mistrust of this stability, and with good reason. As recently as 6 and 7 April, the textile workers' city Al-Mahalla in the Nile delta north of Cairo was the site of severe rioting. The workers of the largest state textiles factory had announced a strike for 6 April, which was prevented by the security forces, but thousands of textile workers gathered in the town centre after the early shift.

Hundreds of mainly young men fought the police on the streets. Cars and shops were burnt out, a passenger train that failed to brake on time drove through a fire burning on the tracks. The protesters pulled down a placard bearing a picture of Mubarak and trampled on the president's face in anger.

The textiles factory had already seen major strikes from December 2006 to September 2007. The authorities partly conceded to the workers' demands – thus inspiring the staff of several hundred other companies across the country to take similar industrial action.

"Major imminent change"

"In the past year alone," says Alaa Al-Aswani, Egypt's most renowned critical author, "there have been 1000 strikes in Egypt. I believe the country is facing major imminent change, and almost everyone can tell."

photo: AP
Egyptian riot police beat a protester with batons, during anti government protests in the city of Mahalla, 7 April 2008

​​The government can use the emergency laws to ban strikes; stoppages are illegal in Egypt. The breeding ground for action of this type is the social poverty and misery in which the country exists. A very varied opposition is flourishing on this breeding ground – and the regime relies on the state of emergency to maintain its power.

The so-called emergency law no. 162 was passed in 1958, applied for the first time in 1967 and has been in effect without interruption from 1981 to the present day, throughout Mubarak's entire time in office. Among other things, it enables far-reaching censorship of the country's media and tapping of private telephones at the government's discretion, it bans demonstrations and allows the interior ministry to arrest Egyptians indefinitely.

Severe restrictions on civil liberties

According to Egyptian and international human rights groups, there are currently at least 5000 people in prison without charge or trial on the basis of the emergency laws, many of whom have been there for years. Amnesty International even quotes a figure of to up to 18,000 prisoners.

The state of emergency enables the government to place severe restrictions on civil liberties. During his presidential election campaign, Mubarak promised to repeal the state of emergency and replace it with anti-terror legislation. Instead, it has now been extended for the second time since the last presidential elections in 2005.

The government, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif announced to parliament on the day of the vote on the state of emergency, has used it strictly to combat terrorism. The normal laws, he claimed, were not suitable for this purpose. And there has allegedly not yet been time to develop efficient anti-terror legislation.

Abuse of anti-terror laws

An argument that critics find ridiculous. "Ten anti-terror laws," Diaa Rashwan from the semi-state Cairo Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies wrote in the independent newspaper Al-Masri al-Youm, "could have been drawn up since Mubarak's pledge to end the state of emergency."

Only weeks beforehand, the chief public prosecutor had ordered the release of Al-Mahalla demonstrators and Internet activists who had called for a general strike as part of the textile workers' protests. According to Human Rights Watch, the interior ministry has put 20 of them back into prison – using the emergency laws.

For regime critics, this is clear evidence of why the country does not yet have anti-terror legislation. It would have to be restricted to combating terrorism and would not be a useful tool for keeping civil society in check.

No possibility to appeal

Alongside the liberal, left-wing and secular opposition, it is above all the Muslim Brotherhood that feels the bite of the state of emergency. In February 2006, a civil court dropped a charge against Khairat Al-Shatir, one of its most prominent leaders, and 15 other Muslim Brothers.

Mubarak himself immediately ordered a new trial, this time before a military tribunal. The accused and 24 other civilians were sentenced to up to ten years in prison on 15 April.

The state of emergency allows the government to try civilians before military tribunals – where there is no possibility to appeal. Yet even the Muslim Brotherhood, the best-organised opposition group in the country, is not the greatest challenge facing the regime.

Bread, not worthy debates

In April, the central statistics authority announced its data on price developments. Bread prices have climbed 48.1 percent in the past twelve months, vegetable oils and fats 45.2 percent, with poultry prices increasing by a staggering 140 percent. In the Muslim Brotherhood, the only role played by social deprivation is in the form of welfare rhetoric. But the people want bread, not worthy debates.

There is no political force on the horizon that could harness the anger over poverty in the form of actions that would really threaten the regime. But the bread riots of January 1977 showed just what this anger might provoke. At least 70 people died in the rioting. Today's situation is just as explosive.

Bahey Edin Hassan, Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, does not expect that the anti-terror law to replace the state of emergency at some point will strengthen civil rights. "This anti-terror law," he says, "will be the worst in the world."

Jürgen Stryjak

© 2008

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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