Egypt’s Emergency Law Explained

The emergency measures grant broad powers to security forces as human rights situation continues to deteriorate.

Sisi Egypt
A few years into Egypt's new authoritarianism, citizens have been herded away from the public space [Reuters]

Following Sunday’s attacks on Coptic churches in Tanta and Alexandria that left at least 45 people dead and over 100 injured, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi declared a three-month state of emergency nationwide.

Lifting the state of emergency, initially imposed following late President Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981 and lasted for three decades under his successor Hosni Mubarak, has been one of the key demands of the January 2011 popular uprising.

In June 2012, Egypt‘s state of emergency finally came to an end. 

However, in January 2013, emergency law was reintroduced by elected President Mohamed Morsi for 30 days, to curb renewed unrest. In August of the same year, and following a military coup led by then defence minister Sisi against Morsi, Egypt’s military-backed government then declared a one-month state of emergency following the violent dispersal of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in what came to be known as Rabaa al-Adawiya massacre in which hundreds of civilians were killed at hands of police and security forces.

What does Egypt’s constitution say about emergency laws?

This is the first time since the adoption of the 2014 constitution that a nationwide state of emergency is declared. The constitution imposes limits on the president’s powers to declare an indefinite state of emergency.

Article 154 states that the president must consult the Cabinet before issuing an official declaration, after which the decision must be submitted to Parliament. A parliamentary majority must approve the declaration within seven days of its issuance for the three-month state of emergency to go into effect.

Once this period elapses, it can only be extended for an additional three months by a two-thirds majority vote.

If Parliament is not in session, the matter is taken to the Cabinet for approval, to be presented to the House of Representatives in its first session.

What are the powers granted to the president?

Despite this limitation, the emergency law still grants the president exceptional powers.

The emergency law grants the president, and those acting on his behalf, the power to refer civilians to State Security Emergency Courts for the duration of the three-month period. There is no appeal process for State Security Emergency Court verdicts.

It also extends powers of the president to monitoring and intercepting all forms of communication and correspondence, imposing censorship prior to publication and confiscating extant publications, impose a curfew for or order the closure of commercial establishments, sequestration of private properties, as well as designating areas for evacuation.

Article 4 of the emergency law grants the Armed Forces the authority to address any violations of these powers.

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The situation today

The emergency measures allow security forces to detain people for any period of time, for virtually any reason. They also grant broad powers to restrict public gatherings and media freedom.

But Egypt’s human rights situation has already been the worst in decades.

Since Sisi took power in 2013, human rights conditions in the country continued to deteriorate.

Human rights organisations found that around 60,000 were imprisoned between 2013 and 2017.To accommodate them, the Egyptian authorities decided to build 10 additional prisons. The facilities that already house these prisoners are extremely overcrowded, according to Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights.

A Human Rights Watch report on Cairo’s Scorpion Prison found that the inmates were mostly political prisoners. The prisoners “suffered abuses at the hands of Interior Ministry officers, including beatings, force feedings, deprivation of contact with relatives and lawyers, and interference in medical care”.

There were 326 cases of extrajudicial killings in 2015, a number which rose to 754 cases in the first half of 2016 alone, according to Al Nadeem Center, a local human rights group.

In August 2016, the Egyptian Coordination of Rights and Freedoms released a report on prison conditions in Egypt under Sisi, documenting 1,344 incidents of torture – including direct torture and intentional medical neglect – in detention facilities and prisons between 2015 and 2016.

There are also reports of forced disappearances. Amnesty International recorded three to four disappearances a day between 2015 and 2016. Amnesty states that the number could be much higher since a lot of families fear the repercussions from reporting a disappearance case.

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Furthermore, Sisi issued a decree in 2014 that allowed the military wider jurisdiction, where civilians were prosecuted by the military courts. These trials contained almost no evidence and were based on investigations led by National Security officers. Human Rights Watch said that this “formed the basis of 7,400 or more military trials of civilians” since Sisi issued the decree.

A few years into Egypt’s new authoritarianism, citizens have been herded away from the public space that has been shrinking thanks to government’s crackdown on independent civil society organisations and opposition political parties.

In 2016, a new law signed by Sisi ordered the creation of a Supreme Council for the Administration of the Media, a body that can revoke licences to foreign media and fine or suspend publications and broadcasters.

The anti-protest law passed in 2013 remains in place. It effectively banned anti-government protests, but the Supreme Constitutional Court is legally challenging it.

In 2016, Egypt also approved an NGO bill that required all centres to register as non-profits regardless of what service they provide. It aims to restrict civil society organisations and their activities, which will be subject to security intervention according to the bill.

Source: Al Jazeera