Egypt's emergency law was first enacted by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) during the country's 1967 war with Israel and remained in place until 1980.

In 1981, the law was reinstated after Anwar Sadat, then the president, was assassinated by a member of the now defunct Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

Its effects continue to be seen everywhere on Cairo's busy streets, where police barricades are a common sight and motorists are routinely stopped by police checking licences and national identification cards.

For 25 years the Egyptian government has been able to censor and shut down newspapers, crush opposition protests and detain dissidents without charge.

Thirty thousand political prisoners are estimated to be imprisoned in Egypt under the emergency law.

Until 1994, the law was renewed annually and since then every three years.

Abolishing old law

But when Hosni Mubarak announced he was running for re-election as president last year, his NDP pledged to abolish the old law.

Hosni Mubarak's NDP had pledged
to abolish the emergency law

This was confirmed in late March, when Ahmed Nazif, the prime minister, announced his government's commitment to abolish the law and form an ad hoc committee to draft a new anti-terrorism law. 

The new legislation would be introduced to protect Egypt from further "terrorist" attacks, in the wake of last year's Sinai and Cairo bombings, the government said. 

Egyptian oppositions groups, which have laboured for the unconditional abolition of the emergency law for over a decade, cried foul and said Nazif's pledge could end democratic reforms.
 
They accused the government of trying to tighten its grip on Egyptian parties by making permanent the repressive aspects of the emergency law under the guise of the new anti-terrorism bill.

Opposition protest

George Ishak, one of the Kifaya (Enough) opposition movement's founders, believes that the gains achieved by his movement and other opposition groups prompted the new bill.

"The government has suggested this anti-terror bill now because they are afraid of how strong the opposition has become in Egypt.

"They simply want to quell those who oppose the ruling regime under a very broad and ambiguous definition of terror. We are all wholly against it."
 
The opposition voiced its rejection of the bill on March 29 at the People's Assembly, when 103 opposition MPs - 88 of whom belong to the banned but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood - signed a petition calling for the unequivocal removal of the old emergency law.

The Brotherhood said it would oppose the anti-terrorism law because it stifles the rights of Egyptians.

Two days later, the government arrested several members of the Brotherhood.

Comparisons to US, UK

A leading Egyptian lawyer says the NDP has been methodically rewriting laws and introducing legislation to increase its hold on power for much of the last 20 years.

"[The government] simply wants to quell those who oppose the ruling regime under a very broad and ambiguous definition of terror. We are all wholly against it"

George Ishak, 
opposition Kifaya movement

Essam El-Islamboli says many of the tenets of the emergency laws have been incorporated into Egyptian legislation.

"The government has announced the abolishment of the old law because much of its content has become redundant. They have proposed the new anti-terror bill simply because they want even more power."

The Egyptian government said it would model its new anti-terrorism law on similar legislation passed in the US and Britain, where police have been given sweeping powers to detain suspected terrorists without charge.

But Gamal Yahya, a professor of legislative policy at Cairo University, believes the basis for anti-terrorism laws in such countries does not apply to Egypt.
 
"When terror legislation is introduced in the UK or the US it is done because police generally do not have the right to infringe upon peoples' freedom in these countries and the anti-terror law temporarily suspends these freedoms to fight terrorism.

"But Egyptian security services already infringe on peoples' rights here every day, so the introduction of a new terror bill can only mean that the government wants to further decrease individual freedom in the country.

"The opposition needs to stand up to the government on this one," he said. 

Fadi al-Qadi, Middle East executive director for Human Rights Watch, says democratic reforms should not be accompanied by extra-judicial laws.

Egyptian judges have protested
at the pace of democratic reforms

Analysts expect the new anti-terrorism legislation to be easily passed in the People's Assembly because the ruling NDP maintains an overwhelming majority.

Gehad Auda, a leading member of the policy committee for the NDP, has said that "the abolition of the old emergency law and the introduction of new anti-terror legislation would be a substantial step towards the full democratisation of Egypt".

"It will serve the purpose of incorporating security matters into the broader sphere of legislature in Egypt," Auda added.

Resignation

But last Wednesday, even the parliament-appointed National Council for Human Rights demanded the unconditional removal of the old emergency law.

However, as the debate over the proposed new bill continues, a sense of resignation seems to be sweeping many prominent opposition groups.

Abdullah El-Sinawi, editor-chief of the Cairo-based Nasserite opposition newspaper Al-Arabee, says he is not optimistic.

"The inevitable implementation of this new anti-terror law - I think its enactment will mark a dark chapter in Egyptian history."