President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi triumphantly announced on October 25 the end of the state of emergency in a Facebook post, which stated that “Egypt has become, thanks to its great people and its loyal men, an oasis of security and stability in the region.”
The state of emergency had been declared in April 2017 following two terrorist attacks targeting Coptic churches in Gharbiya and Alexandria, which had killed 47 people and injured 120. Since then, it has been renewed every three months by the Egyptian Parliament, despite accusations of unconstitutionality from many experts and activists. Article 154 of the Egyptian Constitution limits the maximum duration of the state of emergency to six months, an obstacle that the President removed by separating the end of the state of emergency and its renewal by a short period of time.
Under the state of emergency, security forces are vested with discretionary powers to arbitrarily detain individuals and subject them to military justice.
Under the state of emergency, security forces are vested with discretionary powers to arbitrarily detain individuals and subject them to military justice, monitor private communications, prohibit street demonstrations and gatherings of more than five people, and ban political organizations. It constitutes a powerful tool in the hands of the regime to suspend constitutional freedoms and act against political opponents, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been subject to mass detentions and property confiscations during the state of emergency.
A Symbolic Move That Will Bring Little Change
It is worth noting that Egypt has lived under a state of emergency for most of its recent history: between 1967 and 1980, 1981 and 2013, and finally, between 2017 and 2021. Thus, the non-application of the state of emergency is the exception rather than the rule in Egypt. In this sense, President al-Sisi presented this decision as a symbol of national reconciliation after years of “fighting terrorism.”
This is not the opinion of Mohammad Lotfy, founder and executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), who explained to Inside Arabia that “the non-renewal of the state of emergency does not mean that Egypt is not living [in] an exceptional state of affairs.” According to him, Egypt is governed by a set of repressive and arbitrary laws that allow the state to interfere in citizens’ private lives and annihilate their individual freedoms.
Human Rights Watch recently released a statement in which it condemned the presence of “emergency-like” laws that must be removed, such as the NGO law, the counter-terrorism law, the anti-protest law, and the law on confronting terrorism. Otherwise, lifting the state of emergency will be tantamount to a cosmetic measure without any effect on the ground. These laws, implemented since the 2003 military coup, impose restrictions on political competition, freedom of expression and assembly, and endanger the right to a fair trial.
“The state of emergency constitutes only one layer to the legal framework put in place to undermine fundamental freedoms.”
According to Lotfy, “the state of emergency constitutes only one layer to the legal framework put in place to undermine fundamental freedoms.” He adds that “this decision comes in an effort to show that there is a change [to] the image of the government, which has recently faced harsh criticism due to numerous human rights abuses in Egypt.”
Last May, five Egyptian human rights organizations expressed their views in a press release, establishing a list of seven steps deemed “necessary, clear and urgent” to guarantee the protection of fundamental freedoms in the country. These seven steps include the release of political prisoners, the end of indefinite pretrial custody and blocking of websites, the review of all execution by a presidential pardon board, the end of criminal prosecutions against human rights activists, the withdrawal of the personal status law, and the lifting of the state of emergency. Ending the state of emergency is therefore only one of the seven measures needed to dismantle the arbitrary state in Egypt and allow for real national reconciliation.
Mounting Foreign Pressure on Egypt
Interestingly, this presidential decision comes at a time when Egypt is facing pressure from its Western partners, including the Biden administration, to improve its human rights record.
For the first time since 2014, a group of 31 states, including the United States and the United Kingdom, issued a joint statement to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2021, calling on the Egyptian government to end the harassment and arbitrary detention of human rights defenders. The US State Department also issued a report on Egypt’s human rights record in the same month, which documented restrictions on media, political speech, attacks against sexual minorities as well as numerous abuses from government security forces.
The Egyptian government is superficially attempting to please the Biden administration, which, shortly after taking office, promised to “put human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy” after Joe Biden had criticized President Trump’s unconditional financial support for the Egyptian regime, calling Sisi “Trump’s favorite dictator” during his presidential campaign.
Joe Stork, MENA Deputy Director for Human Rights Watch, nevertheless reckons that “frankly, this is all a charade. There are other interests [at] play considered much more important for the Biden administration, such as counter-terrorism cooperation and Egyptian mediation with Hamas.” These geopolitical interests explain the lack of willingness from the Biden administration to take concrete measures against Egypt, which is seen as a pivotal force in maintaining regional stability.
To be sure, the US State Department declared last October the withholding of $130 million in military aid until Egypt takes “specific actions related to human rights,” without specifying what these actions were. “This is a very small amount, a symbolic gesture. And indeed, the joint statement on October’s meeting between the Egyptian Foreign Minister and the US Secretary of State in Washington underlined the very friendly relations between both administrations,” Stork commented to Inside Arabia.
Egypt seems to be carrying out small superficial human rights reforms in response to foreign pressure, to avoid being regarded as a rogue state.
Egypt seems to be carrying out small superficial human rights reforms in response to foreign pressure, to avoid being regarded as a rogue state by the international community. In addition to the lifting of the state of emergency, the Egyptian government also announced the drafting of a “national human rights strategy,” which has been qualified as “cosmetic” by human rights defenders and did not mark any improvement on the ground.
Political Dissidents Remain Under Threat
As expected, rights activists are still facing threats of arbitrary detention and harassment from security forces, one month after the lifting of the state of emergency. The rulings issued in November by the Emergency Security Court against former parliamentary Zyad El Alaimy and journalists Hisham Fouad and Hossam Younes reveal that the Egyptian government has no intention to put an end to the crackdown on political opponents and advocates.
Despite the ending of the state of emergency, security courts are still conducting trials and producing convictions against human rights activists, although they are not allowed to receive new cases anymore. Lotfy asserted that “these trials are not fair at all, and mainly target members of the political opposition. Once the judgment is pronounced, the convicted person can only appeal to the President’s office.” Lotfy added that many other activists are currently waiting for their trial in emergency courts.
The Egyptian Parliament swiftly passed a series of amendments that aim to incorporate provisions from the emergency law into other laws.
Shortly after the decision, the Egyptian Parliament swiftly passed a series of amendments that aim to incorporate provisions from the emergency law into other laws. According to Lotfy, “this reveals the actual will of the government to keep a grip on society even without the state of emergency,” as these laws have been amended to expand presidential powers to take exceptional measures without any limitation. These amendments apply to the Penal Code and the counter-terrorism law, which allows military courts to conduct trials against civilians.
While the Egyptian government purports to defend human rights and guarantee individual and collective freedom, the reality remains grim for activists and political dissidents, who continue to be threatened with harassment and endless detention. They are often compelled to leave the country as a result, whereas human rights organizations such as the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) are facing travel bans and asset freezes which put their very survival at stake.