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Egypt: Covid-19 Cover for New Repressive Powers

Amendments Could Curb Rights in Name of ‘Public Order’

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gives an address at the Ittihadiya presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, May 26, 2017. © 2017 Reuters
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gives an address at the Ittihadiya presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, May 26, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

(Beirut) – The Egyptian Parliament on April 22, 2020 swiftly approved government-proposed amendments to the 1958 Emergency Law which will give additional sweeping powers to President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi and security agencies, Human Rights Watch said today. President al-Sisi should return the amendments unsigned to Parliament, which should revise the many abusive articles in the law. 

The government said that the amendments concern public health emergencies such as the Covid-19 outbreak. However, only 5 of the 18 proposed amendments are clearly tied to public health developments. Making them part of the Emergency Law means that the authorities can enforce the measures whenever a state of emergency is declared, regardless of whether there is a public health emergency.

“President al-Sisi’s government is using the pandemic to expand, not reform, Egypt’s abusive Emergency Law,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Egyptian authorities should address real public health concerns without putting in place additional tools of repression.”

The government said that the Covid-19 outbreak revealed a “vacuum” in national laws that needed to be addressed. On April 21, Parliament’s Legislative Committee approved the proposed amendments with virtually no changes. The next day, Parliament passed them in a show of hands. President al-Sisi has 30 days to accept and sign or return the draft law once he receives it.

Egypt has been under a nationwide state of emergency since April 2017. The Emergency Law (Law 162 of 1958) gives security forces sweeping powers to detain indefinitely and interrogate suspects with little or no judicial review. The law also authorizes mass surveillance and censorship, seizure of property, and forcible evictions, all without judicial supervision. Under international law, certain rights such as the right to a fair trial and judicial review of detention cannot be curtailed even in times of emergencies.

Human Rights Watch reviewed the proposed amendments published in pro-government newspapers after parliament’s approval. They would give the president, without requiring him to reference any public health emergency, overbroad power to shut schools, universities, courts, government facilities, and public and private businesses completely or partially.

One amendment would allow him, even in the absence of any public health purpose, to restrict “public gatherings, protests, rallies, festivities, and any other form of gathering, including private gatherings.” Others would allow him to restrict anyone from owning, transporting, selling, purchasing, or exporting any goods or services. The amendments also allow him to control prices of goods and services and to “determine methods of collecting monetary and in-kind donations … and rules of their dispensing and spending.”

Article 3 of the Emergency Law (Law 162 of 1958), under which the proposed amendments would be added, authorizes the president to implement such sweeping measures to “preserve security and public order.” Article 3 also allows the president to order these measures verbally but requires him issue them in writing within eight days.

Egypt has lived under the state of emergency for most of the past 40 years, since 1981, with only a few months of interruption, mainly between 2012 and 2017. Successive governments have ignored calls to reform the law and used it to crush peaceful dissent as authorities labeled peaceful opposition gatherings or protests as national security threats.

In the last two months, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly has issued a series of decrees imposing measures to curb the Covid-19 virus spread, such as shutting down air travel, schools and universities, several businesses, and parks and beaches. Based on a Human Rights Watch review of most of these decrees, it appears that the nationwide nighttime curfew in place since the last week of March was the main measure based on the Emergency Law. If the proposed amendments are signed into law, all of these decrees would fall under the sweeping powers of the Emergency Law.

Under international law, measures restricting basic rights during an emergency should be necessary, set out in law, limited in time and place to what is strictly necessary, proportionate, and provide for effective remedies for any violations of rights, such as an independent, transparent appeal mechanism. The wording of these amendments does not meet such requirements, Human Rights Watch said, and Egypt’s Emergency Law does not provide any appeal mechanism.

Anyone violating measures imposed during a state of emergency can be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. Trials in such cases are before Emergency State Security Courts, with judges chosen by the president and no right of appeal. The government historically has used these courts to primarily to prosecute political dissidents, including peaceful ones. The government reinstated these courts in 2017 when the state of emergency was declared.

The amendments also risk broadening the jurisdiction of military courts to prosecute civilians by giving military prosecutors the power to investigate incidents when the army officers are tasked with law enforcement or when the president so orders.

Under Article 154 of Egypt’s 2014 constitution, the president, with parliamentary approval, can declare a state of emergency for up to three months, with three-month extensions if approved by two-thirds of parliament. The current 596-member parliament, tightly controlled by intelligence agencies and dominated by the al-Sisi’s supporters, has acted largely as a rubber-stamp for his policies with virtually no opposition.

Some proposed amendments include positive provisions, such as allowing the president to postpone taxes and utility payments as well as to provide economic support for affected sectors.

“Some of these measures could be needed in public health emergencies, but they should not be open to abuse as part of an unreformed emergency law,” Stork said. “Resorting to ‘national security and public order’ as a justification reflects the security mentality that governs Sisi’s Egypt.”

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