President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Photo by ΝΕΑ ΔΗΜΟΚΡΑΤΙΑ via flickr.com, CC BY-NC 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

The End of Egypt’s State of Emergency: Is This the Beginning of a Fundamental Transformation?

Surprisingly, the state of emergency in Egypt was not extended. However, this appears to be more of a public relations stunt than the beginning of the end of the severe repressions. Over the past few years, the regime has created an environment where it can silence all critics even without using emergency laws.

Headed by the two foreign ministers, delegations from Egypt and the US met on November 8-9, 2021. Engaging in the first strategic dialogue since 2015, they discussed the bilateral relations between the two countries. However, several human rights organizations criticized the negotiations, accusing the US of barely addressing Egypt’s significant restrictions on individual freedoms. Instead, it welcomed the Egyptian government’s recent measures in this regard, such as the publication of a national human rights strategy in September and the expiry of the state of emergency on October 23.

However, the question arises as to whether current developments should indeed be assessed so positively. The continuously declining scores in the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI), especially concerning political transformation and governance, indicate that Egypt has been governed in an increasingly authoritarian manner since the military coup in 2013. Emergency laws facilitate repression and the regime has not only used them against terrorists but all kinds of critics. Will the end of the state of emergency herald a turnaround?

Emergency laws curtail freedoms and rights

On October 25, 2021, President Abdelfattah al-Sisi announced that he would not extend the existing state of national emergency. This came as a surprise; many observers had expected it to become permanent again. Their assumption was based on the fact that Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s authoritarian leader from 1981 to 2011, had ruled his entire term using emergency laws before the state of emergency expired in May 2012. Following attacks on security forces in October 2014, the state of emergency was reintroduced in northern Sinai. After two terrorist attacks on Coptic churches in April 2017, it was extended to the whole country. Since then, it has been prolonged every three months, until October 23.

During the state of emergency, freedoms were restricted, and security forces were given numerous additional powers. They were allowed to detain suspects without warrants, disperse gatherings, intercept private communications and censor media content – mostly without judicial oversight. Similarly, the president’s powers were also greatly expanded, and he was allowed, among other things, to impose curfews and establish restricted areas.

An additional element was the use of special emergency state security courts. High ranking military officers sit on the tribunals alongside civilian judges. Procedural rights are severely restricted, and the independence of these courts is limited. The president appoints judges and can initiate retrials. Sentences are not final until confirmed by the president, and those convicted cannot appeal. Based on a 2017 decree, a wide variety of offences are considered before special emergency state security courts, such as violations of the anti-terror law, violations of the law on demonstrations and even violations of the building code.

An increase in repressive laws continues to restrict freedoms severely

Since 2013, several laws have been enacted, allowing the suppression of any opposition even without a state of emergency. For example, the Demonstration Law (2013) effectively bans street protests, and the NGO Law (2017/2019) imposes severe restrictions on civil society engagement. Enabling security forces to add thousands of critics to terror lists, the Terrorist Associations Act (2015) has resulted in exit bans and asset freezes. The Anti-Terror Law is deliberately vague so that it can be used against all critics. It also grants the security apparatus powers similar to the emergency laws, such as the right to arrest people without a warrant.

On October 31, only days after the state of emergency expired, Parliament approved another set of legislative amendments. Modifications to the Anti-Terror Law permit the president to impose curfews and order arrests independently. In the future, the Code of Criminal Procedure will penalize any procurement of information about the armed forces without prior authorization from the Ministry of Defense.

Citing the Anti-Terror Law, al-Sisi issued a decree on October 2, granting the Ministry of Defense unlimited powers in North Sinai and allowing the imposition of regional curfews and the ordering of forced evictions. The Sinai Foundation for Human Rights has called this a de facto extension of the state of emergency under a different name.

Special courts are suspended, but the judiciary remains dependent

While it is positive that no new cases can be opened in the special emergency state security courts, sentences already handed down remain in force. This affects numerous prominent cases, such as that of the student Ahmed Samir Santawy, who was sentenced to four years in prison for allegedly spreading misinformation in June.

Trials that have already been initiated will continue to be heard by the special emergency state security courts. According to Amnesty International, proceedings have been initiated against at least 20 human rights defenders and opposition politicians in the last three months alone, presumably to have them sentenced by these special courts. This concerns, for example, the cases of activist Patrick Zaky, former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh and blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah.

As the judiciary has been subject to ever stricter control since 2013, it will remain unable to operate independently. For instance, the 2019 constitutional amendment gave the president the authority to appoint the leadership of the main courts and the prosecution. This ended the practice of Egypt’s highest courts appointing their own leadership. In addition, a new body was added to the constitution: the Supreme Judicial Council. It is headed by the president and regulates, among other things, transfers and promotions.

In addition, the jurisdiction of military courts has been significantly expanded since 2013. In 2014, a presidential decree placed public institutions and infrastructure under the control of the military. Recent amendments to the law on October 31 removed the original time limit on this. The 2019 constitutional amendment stipulated that all civilians accused of attacking military facilities would face military tribunals. The military has significantly expanded its economic activities, and all military-run businesses are subject to military jurisdiction. As a result of the ever-expanding jurisdiction, thousands of civilians are now sentenced by military courts every year.

PR stunt instead of a new beginning

Thus, the end of the state of emergency alone does not represent the beginning of a new phase of transformation. It is true that the security authorities and the president will be deprived of some powers, and special emergency state security courts will be abolished. However, an end to the harsh repressions is not to be expected. In recent years, the regime has laid the groundwork for taking action against critics even without emergency laws. Accordingly, Human Rights Watch points out that the human rights situation will not improve without further measures, such as revising repressive laws or releasing political prisoners. Recent changes in the law and indictments of human rights defenders and opposition politicians do not indicate that such measures are planned.

Therefore, many observers interpret the end of the state of emergency more as a PR stunt and a signal of accommodation to the United States and the EU. Egypt’s image is tarnished because of its disastrous human rights record. Although this has had few consequences for international cooperation, deficiencies in this area are disrupting bilateral relations. For the first time in the last two years, the US has tied a (small) portion of its annual military aid of 1.3 billion euros to human rights compliance. The regime can score points here with actions that are sold as progress in human rights, as demonstrated in the strategic dialogue with the US.

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