Middle East

Egypt to abolish reviled 30-year-old emergency law

CAIRO: Egypt has begun procedures to end the country’s three-decade old state of emergency, the government said Thursday, a key demand of the protesters who ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February.

The Cabinet said it would abide by a pledge to end emergency rule, which gave Mubarak’s hated police sweeping powers to crush dissent, before parliamentary elections in November.

“The government has decided to start the procedures needed to end the state of emergency, in coordination with the military council,” Cabinet spokesman Mohammad Hegazy said.

Rights campaigners say the continued emergency powers are an anachronism in post-Mubarak Egypt that saps the credibility of the interim government as a force for democratic change.

Days of street protests broke out in July, fueled partly by perceptions that the security forces had not been brought to account for the brutal treatment of protesters during the 18-day uprising against Mubarak and that abuses were continuing.

Some Egyptians say the police are trying to change their high-handed ways and have at least become more polite to the public. Others say that, inside police stations, intimidation, bullying and disregard for human rights are as common as ever.

The emergency law, introduced in 1981 after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat by Islamist militants, allowed the police to hold people for months without charge.

Scrapping it will force the police to respect due procedure and the presumption of innocence – in theory.

“This is empty talk,” said human rights activist Negad al-Borai. “The situation in Egypt is horrible and I no longer care if the government says it will remove or keep the emergency law. The issue is to what extent the government is willing to respect human rights.”

Amnesty International in April urged Egypt to scrap the law in an 80-page report called “Time for Justice: Egypt’s corrosive system of detention.”

It listed brutal treatment of detainees that included beatings, electric shocks, suspension by the wrists and ankles for long periods, sleep deprivation and death threats.

Mubarak-era officials brushed off concerns about human rights abuses as false allegations or isolated incidents that did not prove any pattern of abuse.

Under Mubarak, police would pounce on even small protests, shove demonstrators into vans and cart them away for detention.

Today, Liberals, Islamists and those with little political allegiance often turn out by the thousand to press for fair elections, access to services and an end to police brutality.

But disputes over the founding principles of post-Mubarak Egypt – especially the role of the army and religion – offer a challenge for the ruling generals trying to reconcile the aspirations of hostile opposing political groups.

The army has vowed to hand power to civilians. Secularists and some government officials fear Islamists, freed to take part in formal politics after Mubarak’s ouster, would turn Egypt into a theocracy if they win power.

The main Islamic political groups say they want a civil state with an Islamic reference but have no hidden agenda.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 12, 2011, on page 8.

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