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Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

30 Years of Emergency Law in Egypt, and Counting

On October 6, 1981, a state of emergency was declared in Egypt following the assassination of President Anwar El Sadat. His successor, Hosni Mubarak, kept the emergency law in place for the next 30 years, using it to suppress dissent, quash opposition and give rise to a sprawling domestic security apparatus that committed rampant human rights abuses and nurtured a culture of government corruption, all for the sole purpose of keeping his regime in power.

Today, Mubarak is behind bars, forced out of office in a popular revolution that was driven in large part by contempt for the draconian law and the police state it helped spawn. Yet, eight months after the revolution began, Egypt is still under a state of emergency. In fact, its scope has been broadened by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces that came to power following Mubarak's ouster.

On September 10, the military council announced it would fully enforce the emergency law and added to it a new list of offenses, including "aggression against the freedom to work, sabotaging factories and holding up transport, blocking roads and deliberately publishing false news, statements or rumors."

“These changes are a major threat to the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, and the right to strike,” says Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa. “We are looking at the most serious erosion of human rights in Egypt since Mubarak stepped down.”

The military council's emergency law decree was made in the wake of the storming of the Israeli embassy in Giza a day earlier, when protesters managed to break into one of the embassy's office floors as hundreds of police and army forces stationed around the corner did nothing to stop them. It was only after protesters attacked the local security headquarters that central security forces launched a crackdown that resulted in three people killed, over 100 arrested and more than 1,000 wounded.

Those arrested under the emergency law are tried before special courts known as (Emergency) Supreme State Security Courts, which, like military courts, violate the right to a fair trial and deny defendants the right to appeal, say human rights activists. The law also gives security forces virtually unrestrained powers of search, arrest and detention.

A few days later, Adel al-Morsy, the head of the Military Judicial Authority, announced that the emergency law would remain in effect until June 2012. The decision contravenes the military council's vow in a constitutional declaration passed last March to abolish the state of emergency by September 30. As it stands, the post-revolutionary parliamentary elections scheduled to begin in November will take place under the same state of emergency that Egyptians have been subject to for the past three decades.


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The military council's decisions have sparked outrage and demonstrations in defiance of the law. Last Monday, over a thousand protesters gathered in Tahrir Square—the iconic epicenter of the revolution—and marched to the ministerial cabinet headquarters in protest. Hundreds of people also gathered at the Journalists' Syndicate in downtown Cairo on two separate occasions to demonstrate against the law and to hear testimony from family members of detainees arrested and jailed in military courts and from human rights attorneys and activists about the legal implications of the ongoing state of emergency.

Among those speaking out at the Journalists' Syndicate protests were reporters and workers from Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr (Al Jazeera Live Egypt), an affiliate of the Al Jazeera satellite network which was launched in the aftermath of the 18-day uprising. Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr had become known for its live and extensive coverage of street protests in Egypt in the post-Mubarak transitional period.

Two days after the Israeli embassy incident, officers from the public broadcasting agency had raided the Giza office of Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr and shut it down. Officials seized broadcasting equipment and arrested the station's chief engineer, detaining him overnight. They claimed that neighbors had filed a complaint and that the station had been broadcasting without a license. A separate lawsuit had also been filed accusing the channel of "sowing dissent" and "calling for demonstrations."

"It makes us really afraid. It makes us feel unhappy and uneasy," says Ayman Gaballah, the managing director of Al Jazeera Mubasher. He says the channel filed for a broadcasting license in April and though they repeatedly inquired about the paperwork at the government broadcasting agency, they were assured the license would be granted and were told they could continue broadcasting in the interim. "We are afraid that this is a way of manipulating us to keep us always under pressure. So the moment they are not satisfied they can come in with a heavy hand and close our office," Gaballah says.

The day after the protest, Gaballah, along with a number of activists and renowned human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif El-Islam, went to the government press center office and submitted additional paperwork to obtain their broadcast license. They were told they would hear back within two weeks.

Meanwhile, street protests, labor strikes and criticism of the military council in the media continue on a daily basis in defiance of the military council's threats to fully enforce the emergency law. After 30 years, Egyptians are demanding to live under rule of law, not emergency.

Sharif Abdel Kouddous

Sharif Abdel Kouddous is an independent journalist based in Cairo. He is a Democracy Now! correspondent and a fellow at The Nation Institute.  Follow his website Egypt Reports. Follow him on twitter: @sharifkouddous

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