Emergency law renewed

It kind of snuck up on us, but today PM Nazif asked parliament to extend the emergency law for another two years, using the Dahab bombings as a justification. I received a SMS on my phone around 3:30pm saying it has already been passed. That's a fast turnaround for a parliament that usually leaves things to the last minute.

Update: Reuters has coverage of the parliamentary vote -- 378 MPs in attendance, out of 454, 91 opposed renewal. Most of these are Muslim Brotherhood MPs (88 total). If all members of the opposition and independents had been there, the 'no' vote would have been no more than 120. I would like to see whether all NDP members voted for the renewal -- which is likely, although some independents-turned-NDP could have abstained or opposed the vote (but at what cost?) 378 MPs present actually seems high to me, especially as, as far as I know, this was unexpected. Were they told to rush back to Cairo for the vote? Probably. Already there was about a 25% no vote, which isn't bad, but it could have easily been 35% or higher (assuming the opposition was also able to quickly rally MPs for the vote.) The whole thing being passed so fast is also strange. I wonder if legal scholars would say that, procedurally, this was given the appropriate amount of time?

Here a reminder -- if we need one -- of what the emergency law entails is probably in order (italics mine):

The emergency law grants to the authority the following :
Broad power to impose restrictions on the freedoms of assembly, move or residence; the power to arrest and detain suspects or those deemed dangerous, and the power to search individuals and places without the need to follow the provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code (by virtue of article 3 of the emergency law). Certainly, these powers constitute gross violations of the rights guaranteed by the Egyptian Constitution, which provides for personal freedom in article 41, the inviolability of private homes in article 44, freedom of movement and residence in article 54. These powers also disregard many rights and safeguards stipulated in the International Convent on Civil and Political Rights ( ICCPR ) such as article 9 on personal freedom, article 12 on freedom of movement and article 21 on the right of peaceful assembly.

The right to establish exceptional courts such as the state security courts and the Supreme State Security Court of Emergency to hear cases related to crimes committed in violation of rulings made by the President of the Republic or his deputy (by virtue of article 7/1 of the Emergency Law), and the right to include members of the military in the formation of the courts (article 7/4). These powers clearly violate constitutional and international principles relevant to the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary and the immunity of judges (articles 165-173 of the Constitution and article 14 of the ICCPR). [note: the emergency courts were abolished a few years ago.]

Article 3 of the emergency law gives the military ruler or his deputy the power to monitor the newspapers, booklets and other publications of expressing opinion. He has the power to confiscate and stop circulating these publications. In this regard, this law clearly violates the right to privacy and to confidentiality of correspondence and telephone calls as well as the freedom of opinion, expression and research stated in article 45 and 49 of the Egyptian Constitution, and articles 17-19 of the ICCPR.

· Article 9 of the emergency law confers to the President of the Republic the right to refer to the State Security Courts of Emergency those accused of crimes that are punishable under the common law. This is a clear violation of article 40/9 of the Constitution, which states that all citizens are equal and are entitled to be tried by a competent judge and have the right to get fair and impartial trial as asserted by article 14 of the ICCPR.

If the Niyaba (office of the Public prosecutor) decides to bring a criminal case, a trial is held before an Egyptian court. Most cases are heard in permanent criminal courts. However, under the state of emergency, if the President or the Prime Minister (acting under the authority of the President) decides to do so, they can move a case to either an Emergency State Security Court or a Military Court. Most politically sensitive criminal cases end up in one of these latter types of courts.
Another interesting thing is that, according to reports, the emergency law was renewed for only two years rather than the standard three. This could be in line with Mubarak's statements a few weeks ago that the new anti-terror law would take at least 18 months to be ready for parliament. One theory behind the delay is that security services want to enshrine most of their current privileges under the emergency law not only into a new anti-terror law, but into the constitution itself. These might range from the ability to keep someone in jail without charging them with a crime to phonetapping without a warrant to making some forms of assembly illegal. But, under this theory, there is an argument inside the regime between the security folks and others (what others, I would ask?) Even if this is not the case, a new anti-terror law is likely to put the extraordinary privileges of the emergency law into the ordinary penal code.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out into the ongoing political upheaval, notably the judges. There are already about 1000-1500 judges who have sided with the "rebels" in the showdown between the state and police. Mubarak has thus far avoided getting overtly involved, simply stating over the weekend that he urges judges to solve the differences they have among themselves "for the national interest." The judges may well adopting the emergency law into their cause. Since it already is the central issue of all the opposition, gaining the support of the rebel judges on this issue would turn them into even more opposition figures than they already are. And since the judges are the most respected, high-profile voice of discontent in the country these days, that could help carry the message of the opposition to a bigger audience. The judges' protest has political traction. It could cause the situation escalate to a new level.

In the meantime, the Muslim Brotherhood is coming under continuing attack, with another batch of its members arrested yesterday. As the de facto leader of the opposition, what will it do? Probably nothing -- at least not unless it sees others leading the way.

There is no reason to believe that this time will be any different than the last few times the emergency law was renewed and there were a few protests and then resignation. And this despite nearly 18 months of regular street protests against them and a now universal agreement (Mubarak promised he would get rid of it, remember?) that it must go. But there is a small potential -- very small -- that things could go otherwise.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.