Egypt’s government said on Tuesday it sought a two-year extension to emergency law and was amending it to narrow its use, but analysts said the internationally criticised law could still be used to stifle dissent.
Emergency law, in force since 1981, allows indefinite detention and other measures which rights groups and activists say have been used to silence opponents of President Hosni Mubarak, 82, and his ruling party.
Around 200 protesters — including former presidential candidate Ayman Nour, all the Muslim Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc and labour leaders — had gathered outside parliament to protest against the planned extension. They were surrounded by hundreds of police in riot gear.
Before the formal request to parliament by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, the government said in a statement that it would request “the extension of the state of emergency before parliament, citing persistent and grave threats to national security posed by terrorism and narcotics trafficking.”
The statement added that “the government has undertaken to limit the application of the emergency law solely for the purposes of countering terrorism and narcotics trafficking.”
Minister of State for Legal Affairs Moufid Shehab said changes meant the law was acting like anti-terrorism legislation in other states and said an anti-terrorism act was in the works. He dismissed charges emergency law was used against opponents.
The extension sought will run until May 31, 2012, covering a period that includes parliamentary and presidential elections.
The law has been extended routinely for almost three decades.
SEEN AS LEGAL PLOY
“The government’s modification of the emergency law … is nothing but a curtain that it is hiding behind,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah from the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
The changes state that the law would only apply to terror and drugs cases, which the state has long said was the focus of the legislation but analysts argue is a legal ploy that masks the law’s violation of basic human rights.
“There are no real changes or amendments to the emergency law, which has only ever been applied to control those with political opinion,” former judge Mahmoud Khoudary said.
“This is not the first time the government has talked about amendments which serve to justify the law’s ongoing extension.”
Other analysts argued changing emergency law to a terror law would not amount to any substantive legal difference.
“Even if the emergency law is substituted with another, say the terror law, it would only be a change in name. The regime in Egypt cannot survive without emergency law which allows it to control political life,” Fahmy Huweidi, a government critic, said before details of the new law emerged.
Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son and a senior official in the ruling National Democratic Party, previously told Egyptian journalists that the law should be applied with “certain controlling measures” on its use. He did not give details.
The president has not said if he will seek another six-year term in office. Many Egyptians believe that, if he does not run, his son, 46, might be levered into office.
Ending emergency law has long been a call of government critics and it has been a rallying cry for recent protests since April 6 in Cairo that have been small by global standards but unusual in Egypt where security quickly quashes dissent.
As well as drawing criticism from local and international rights groups, the United States, one of Egypt’s Western allies and a major donor, has called for the law to be lifted and replaced with a counter-terrorism law.
(Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh, writing by Alastair Sharp; Editing by Charles Dick)