Emergency Law Threatens Expression in Egypt

ISIS attacked two Egyptian Coptic churches this past Sunday. Explosions killed 45 parishioners celebrating Palm Sunday in Alexandria and the northern city of Tanta in the Nile Delta. ISIS took responsibility for the blasts.

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and his cabinet responded forcefully to the attacks: Egypt will “do what is necessary to confront the threats of terrorism and its financing”. And to that effect, the government announced the reinstatement of a state of emergency across the Egypt. This move reflects back on a previous period of modern Egyptian history. After the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1987, his successor Hosni Mubarak, instated a state of emergency across the country.

The particular law that authorizes the state emergency is extensive. Constitutional rights go away – freedom of assembly is curtailed and censorship legalized – and police powers expand – dissidents subject to indefinite detention and trial in military courts – as long as the state of emergency remains in effect.

Egypt’s rulers have been fond of the emergency law over the past 30 years. Hosni Mubarak, the long-term head of Egypt before the Morsi interlude, activated the law after he assumed power in the wake of Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1987. From that point, Mubarak revived the state of emergency every three years until the Arab Spring uprising resulted in the his fall.

This is the background to the emergency law, now renewed in the wake of the reprehensible attacks on the Coptic churches. With the expansive powers guaranteed by the emergency law, civic life in Egypt stands little to gain.

In previous years, dissent has not been tolerated. Journalists face threats from official power and are detained for perceived criticisms of President Sisi, the government, or the military. Sisi’s own history rise to power does not promise a better path forward. His security forces, after all, killed near 1,000 pro-Morsi protesters in Rebaa Square after Morsi’s ouster.

The reinstatement of the emergency law does not bode well for Egypt. It is clear that the Egyptian state has disregarded constitutional rights without pretext or excuse. Now, the emergency law mobilizes the state to fight terrorism, the 21st century classic cover to erode civil society and rights with legal legitimacy.

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