Egypt extends state of emergency: what does it mean?

Thu 6 Jul 2017

Egypt extends state of emergency: what does it mean?

On 4 July the Egyptian parliament approved an extension of the state of emergency which was declared in April, after deadly attacks killed nearly 50 people. President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi initially imposed the state of emergency after suicide bombings struck two Coptic Christian churches on Palm Sunday, in an attack that was claimed by the Egyptian affiliate of the Islamic State group. Before, al-Sisi had adamantly promised to resist Islamist terror and protect the Christian minority in Egypt. Based on al-Sisi’s decision to guarantee citizens’ safety, the state of emergency continues to be in place for another three months from 10 July.

Implications of the state of emergency
Egypt’s emergency law of 1958 allows authorities to arrest, detain, try, and sentence suspects with almost no judicial review. Between October 1981 and June 2012, a state of emergency was in place continuously. Especially since the overthrow of Morsi, Egyptian authorities have exercised such emergency powers in practice. This emergency law allegedly goes further than Mubarak’s mandate, with al-Sisi’s administration passing a counterterrorism law in 2015. The current government has come under intense scrutiny, as it resorts to a state of emergency without making use of the penal code and regular courts. The government has effectively banned opposition protests, and security officers have tortured suspects in order to obtain confessions.

In this regard, international law stipulates that governments may only declare a state of emergency when there is a threat to the life of the nation. The emergency restrictions must be proportionate: the measures taken should not go further than is necessary to achieve a goal. Some rights, including the absolute ban on torture, the right to judicial review of detention, and the right to a fair trial, cannot be limited even during emergencies. Therefore, it is questionable whether the legal and political actions carried out in the name of combating terror are proportionate, since non-violent actors are also affected.

The discrepancy between law and practice
Although al-Sisi’s government has ordered the state of emergency to guarantee security, it has arguably failed to protect the Christian minority, which consists of 10 percent of the population. On 26th May, a convoy of Coptic Christians was attacked. At least 28 people were killed, many of them being children. The Coptic community relies upon the government for protection, but whilst the violence of the Morsi regime has subsided, the government does not deliver in practice what is stipulated in the law. In theory, Egyptians enjoy absolute freedom of religion under the 2014 Constitution. Islam is the state religion, however, and it is forbidden to convert to a religion other than Islam. 

Moreover, despite his outwardly support and clear stance on the position of Egyptian Copts, al-Sisi fails to acknowledge the discrimination against Copts in practice. To illustrate, the level of Christian representation in government is disproportionally low, in particular within the influential security department. Egypt’s current parliament, which has been acclaimed for its “unprecedented” representation of minorities, has only 36 Christians out of 596 members. Additionally, 24 of these Christians were elected due to Egypt’s first religiously-based quota system.

Emerging problems  
Two trends in Egypt are problematic for Christians and other minorities. Firstly, a clear and explicit eradication of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. There has been a recent increase in regime targets, due to criticism towards al-Sisi’s administration. Secondly, employees of human rights NGOs and foreign journalists have been arrested and placed under direct surveillance as a result of a new law that was signed in May.

This so-called NGO law severely restricts NGOs and charities in delivering certain services, especially in the realm of socio-political development. “This new law represents a huge step backward for freedom of association in Egypt,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Egyptian authorities have squeezed shut whatever limited space remained for non-governmental groups in Egypt and driven the human rights community underground.” Hence, the current Egyptian regime utilises the law to silence any opposition, and the annihilation of NGOs enhances the objective of isolating citizens from the political domain.

Framework of developments

Ever since the overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in a military coup in July 2013, Egypt has faced an economic crisis in an increasingly divided nation. Once Morsi’s authoritarian rule had come to an end, current president al-Sisi announced the suspension of the Constitution and vouched for new parliamentary and presidential elections. The current government, backed by the military, opposed the Muslim Brotherhood that Morsi was a part of. However, many of the Muslim Brotherhood supporters continued to stage counterprotests and express their support for Morsi.

In August 2013, military forces barged in on a demonstration, killing more than 600 Morsi supporters. Human Rights Watch described it as "one of the largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history". Egypt then sentenced hundreds of alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death in a widely criticised mass trial, "the biggest mass sentence given in modern Egyptian history", according to Amnesty International. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s oldest and most influential Islamist group, was banned by the government and had its assets seized before being declared a "terrorist organisation".  

Sources: Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Al-Monitor, Human Rights Watch, Reuters, Daily News Egypt