Egypt’s emergency laws, widely used under the rule of ousted President Hosni Mubarak to silence political opponents, have expired for the first time in 31 years, the country’s ruling military council announced on Thursday.
The stifling effect of the laws, implemented after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, were one of the key drivers of the uprising that forced Mubarak from power.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces said in a statement that obliquely mentioned the end of the state of emergency that it would continue to take responsibility for the nation’s security “in deference to the national, political and popular desire”.
The military stated that its responsibility would end when power is transferred to civilian rule, a process set to finish when a new president assumes office following a runoff election in June.
Al Jazeera’s Rawya Rageh, reporting from Cairo, said the expiration was cause for Egyptians to celebrate but that questions remained over how to deal with those accused in the special security courts established under the laws.
“To begin with, there’s the fact that there are dozens of people who were rounded up under emergency law who remain in custody,” she said.
“At least six cases were referred in 2011 and 2012 to these exceptional tribunals. What is going to be the fate of these trials?”
Activists have also called on the country’s recently elected parliament to open a wide investigation into the abuses committed under emergency law, Rageh said.
The statutes that make up emergency law forbade most public gatherings, effectively criminalising protests, and allowed security officers to search and arrest anyone without probable cause. They also provided for indefinite detention and rendered judicial review ineffective.
At least 188 people remain detained under emergency laws and at least eight cases are pending before state security courts, according to Human Rights Watch, which said two cases involve alleged sectarian violence, two involve spying and one involves violence at a protest.
The latest conviction under emergency law came on May 21, when eight people were acquitted and 12 sentenced to life in prison in connection with an outbreak of sectarian violence in 2011, the group said.
Human Rights Watch and other activists have called on the government to refer all state security cases to regular civilian courts with the expiration of emergency law.
The statutes were renewed for two years in May 2010 by a parliament dominated by Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.
The military council promised to do away with them after Mubarak’s regime fell in February 2011 but instead expanded their scope after thousands of protesters broke into the Israeli embassy in September. That incident led state security prosecutors to refer 76 people to trial.
In January, the generals declared that emergency laws would only be applied in cases of thuggery, a vague definition that legal experts argued had essentially left the laws in place.
But by then, the emergency laws had been eclipsed by the military’s use of its own justice system to arrest, jail and prosecute at least 10,000 people, many of them protesters or petty criminals, activists have said.
The use of military trials for civilians, which began shortly after the revolution, still has not been discarded by the council.
Under Egypt’s current interim constitution, the president may declare a state of emergency subject to a majority vote by parliament within seven days.