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Egypt: Ending State of Emergency a Start But Insufficient

Little Impact on Civil Liberties Without Changing Abusive Laws

Egyptian security forces cordon off roads during curfew hours, in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, March 29, 2020. © AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty

(Beirut) – Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s October 25, 2021 announcement that he is lifting the nationwide state of emergency is positive, but far from sufficient to begin to quell the country’s prolonged human rights crisis, Human Rights Watch said today.

The government needs to end many other emergency-law-like restrictions on civic participation, freedom of speech, and peaceful assembly. The president should also free the many thousands of people jailed under those unjust laws.

“Since the July 2013 military coup, the government has issued dozens of laws that need to be amended or removed,” said Amr Magdi, senior Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Otherwise, lifting the state of emergency will improve very little, if anything.”

Al-Sisi declared the nationwide state of emergency in April 2017 following a major terrorist attack that killed dozens of Christians. Since then, he has renewed it every three months despite article 154 of the constitution, which limits a state of emergency to three months, renewable once. The current and previous parliaments, overwhelmingly pro-Sisi, have acted as a rubber stamp for those decisions.

The 1958 Emergency Law grants security forces wide, unchecked powers, including to detain suspects and dissidents, monitor private communications, ban gatherings and evacuate areas, and seize property, among others, all with little or no judicial review. Egypt has lived under a state of emergency since 1981, with the exception of interrupted periods between mid-2012 and mid-2017.

Since al-Sisi as defense minister orchestrated former President Mohamed Morsy’s removal in 2013, the government has introduced dozens of laws that grant security forces exceptional powers and unlawfully restrict basic rights, even without invoking the Emergency Law. The 2013 anti-protest law, for one, effectively banned almost all forms of peaceful gatherings and has led to the arrest and prosecution of tens of thousands of people.

In August 2015, al-Sisi decreed Law 94 on Confronting Terrorism. It espouses a very wide definition of terrorism that includes virtually all forms of civil disobedience. The government has used this law extensively to crush peaceful dissent and prosecute critics before abusive terrorism courts. A few months earlier, in February 2015, al-Sisi decreed the Terrorist Entities Law, which allowed the authorities to put thousands of dissidents, critics, and entities on terrorism lists merely on the basis of security memos that the Prosecutor General’s office sent to a criminal court, without court hearings or any form of due process. A terrorist designation automatically leads to a five-year travel ban and asset freeze orders, among other grave consequences.

Article 53 of the 2015 counterterrorism law borrows language from the Emergency Law, giving the president the authority to “take any appropriate measures to preserve security and public order” including, but not limited to, imposing curfews, evacuating areas, or restricting freedom of movement. On October 2, Presidential Decree 420 of 2021 delegated article 53’s unchecked powers over the situation in North Sinai to Defense Minister Mohamed Zaki for six months, which can be renewed indefinitely.

Another law that needs to be thoroughly amended or replaced is the 2019 NGO law which imposes severe restrictions on independent organizations and on civil engagement, and which subjects the day-to-day work of organizations to onerous security control and surveillance. Egyptian authorities should also urgently reverse 2013 amendments to the code of criminal procedure, which allow virtually indefinite pretrial detention of suspects, leading to thousands of people being locked up without trial.

In May, leading Egyptian human rights organizations issued a joint statement featuring seven “necessary, clear and urgent measures” the Egyptian authorities should take as essential for any “meaningful progress” on human rights. In addition to lifting the state of emergency the groups demanded freeing political prisoners and ending “endless” detentions.

The US, the EU and its member states, and Egypt’s other international partners have continued to provide military, economic, and political support to the Egyptian government despite overwhelming evidence of serious and systematic human rights abuses committed by its notorious security apparatus. President Biden and other leaders should not agree to meet with President al-Sisi in the absence of significant progress beyond lifting the state of emergency.

“Lifting the state of emergency should not distract Egypt’s allies from insisting that President al-Sisi take key steps to address the oppressive reality of political life in Egypt,” Magdi said. “He should instruct authorities to reverse major abusive laws and free the many thousands of Egyptians jailed under these laws for exercising their basic rights to free expression and peaceful assembly.”


10/29/2021: This version of the press release has been updated to reflect the correct number of the August 2015  law on confronting terrorism. 

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