Amid spasms of violence in Egypt’s North Sinai, the cabinet has approved a draft law entailing harsher legal and security responses to “terrorism-related” cases.
The “anti-terror” law and its proposed changes to judicial procedures have provoked criticism from human rights groups, media and legal organisations in the country, which have condemned it as unconstitutional.
The draft law calls for sharp penalties on those convicted of acting in, joining or aiding designated “terrorist” groups, including death penalties for funding “terrorist” organisations and life sentences for carrying out espionage on behalf of foreign organisations.
In a statement to Egyptian media, Minister of Parliamentary Affairs and Transitional Justice Ibrahim el-Heneidy defended the bill, noting: “This law comes as a new harsher measure aimed at stemming the tide of terrorist organisations.”
But critics cite a host of negative implications for freedom of the press, judicial due process, personal privacy and freedom of expression on social media.
In addition to amplifying penalties, the draft law also alters how “terrorism-related” cases are litigated. It allows for extended pre-trial detention periods, for suspects to be detained without arrest warrants and for orders to tap and record private conversations.
The bill also allows security forces to employ violence or force in “anti-terrorism” efforts, absolving them of any legal consequences afterwards.
Critics have pointed to a provision in the draft law that establishes exclusive court circuits for “terrorism-related” cases, which Heneidy said would result in “acceleration in court procedures… through shrinking in the litigation period”.
Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Middle East Programme for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the draft law could potentially accelerate the pace of already unfair trial processes.
“Most of the trials [over the past two years] have taken a lot of time, even if the procedures were not at all fair,” she told Al Jazeera. “Recently, especially with the uptick in anti-state violence, there were a lot of calls to expedite trials, to expedite executions. [This law] might well make appeals processes much more limited than they are under current law, making trials move faster.”
Over the past two years, Egypt has seen internationally-criticised mass trials, executions without fair appeals processes and the forced disappearances of activists; the new law would give state security even more restrictive powers.
“In terms of the new draft anti-terror law… measures that took place under emergency law in the past are now being put into regular law,” Dunne said, noting procedures previously reserved for military courts would be applied to civilian ones as well.
The new bill is the latest in Egypt’s family of “anti-terrorism” legislation, which previously centred on the official definition of “terrorism” in Article 86 of the country’s Penal Code.
In February, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi approved the “Terrorism” Entities Law, which gave the prosecution the authority to draw up lists of “terrorist” organisations and members, even if these organisations were not deemed “terrorist groups” in court. Acts that could be called “terrorism” included destabilising public order, blocking public or private transportation and harming national unity.
Following his death, fighting between the military and the ISIL-affiliated Province of Sinai group convulsed the country’s Sinai region – the worst violence the area has seen in years.
The draft law would broaden the definition of “terrorism” in the Penal Code, incorporating crimes on social media and increasing the number of cases punishable by death.
Mai el-Sadany, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said the new definition is too ambiguous, leaving “terrorism” cases susceptible to the bending of political will. According to Sadany, someone expressing dissent through peaceful means could feasibly be tried as a “terrorist” under the new law.
“Ultimately, the law maintains much of the same problematic broad and vague language that is characteristic of previous terrorism legislation [in Egypt],” she told Al Jazeera.
Among the law’s most criticised aspects is Article 33, which penalises individuals who publish “false information” contradicting official government statements on “terrorist” attacks.
The law originally mandated two-year prison sentences for those found guilty, but amid a flurry of public criticism from journalists, Egypt’s cabinet amended the law, replacing the jail sentence with a fine of between $25,000 and $65,000.
Meanwhile, in North Sinai, reports of casualties have differed dramatically between government sources and the press. Earlier this month, Egyptian army Brigadier General Mohamed Samir called on local journalists not to repeat death tolls published by foreign media. Heneidy maintains that Article 33 is not directed at press freedom but rather at “websites which intentionally publish false information that incite to violence”.
Yet in a letter to Sisi, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) declared the article unconstitutional and emphasised that, today, there is a record number of jailed journalists in Egypt, “where press freedom is already on the decline”.
The law must be dropped or fundamentally revised.
As the draft law undergoes constitutional review, both the Journalism Syndicate and the National Council for Human rights have released statements saying they were not consulted during the law’s drafting period, violating articles in the constitution that call for these groups to review relevant press and human rights laws, according to the state-run Ahram news service.
Since taking office, Sisi has passed more than 168 laws in the absence of a parliament – and the law can be signed by Sisi at any time, according to Amnesty International Egypt researcher Mohamed el-Messiry. Amnesty has called on the government to drop the draft law, saying it presents a potential tool for authorities to “criminalise the exercise of human rights”.
“The law expands the scope of the death penalty, even if the [convicted ‘terrorist’] act did not lead to loss of life,” Messiry told Al Jazeera. “It also gives security forces the right to use lethal force. The law must be dropped or fundamentally revised.”