Reporting from Cairo — Egypt's parliament Tuesday extended the nation's emergency law, limiting its scope but drawing condemnation from dissidents and human rights groups who say the legislation will not stop police from arresting opposition leaders and democracy activists.
Parliament approved the law while opponents protested outside amid rows of riot police. The government sought to defuse criticism by emphasizing that the measure would cover only terrorism and drug-related crimes. But critics accused authorities of making cosmetic changes to a 29-year-old system that gives police sweeping discretionary powers against political opponents.
"The new law is very ambiguous and can easily be manipulated," said Hafez abu Seada, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. "The law still persecutes freedoms like gathering in public, which doesn't fall under terrorism. We will also still have military tribunals and the government's right to issue military orders."
Extension of the emergency law, which was passed in 1981 after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, comes as the government is under widespread pressure. Public anger is high, protests over low wages and for constitutional revisions are increasing, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei is enlivening the opposition with his new National Front for Change.
President Hosni Mubarak, 82 and in frail health, has yet to strike the right tone or inspire policies to calm the furor. Renewing the emergency law, but narrowing its powers, allows the ruling National Democratic Party to claim support for press freedom and human rights while simultaneously keeping mechanisms in place to combat dissent before this year's parliamentary elections.
"We do not deny that we still have issues, but we are working to resolve them," said Moufid Shehab, minister of state for legal and parliamentary affairs, acknowledging violations of civil liberties under the emergency law. "We aspire to one day have an end to emergency law."
Shehab said the two-year extension, which passed by a wide majority, was needed to counter terrorism. He suggested that cases against bloggers and activists who have been jailed in recent years under the act for crimes unrelated to terrorism may be reviewed. The extension also will prohibit security forces from shutting newspapers and confiscating property. But security forces can still rely on an array of other laws to silence critics.
Shebab said the new emergency law means: "No trial, no indictment unless it's a terrorist act."
The government had promised to repeal the emergency law once it passed an anti-terrorism act, which has been bottled up in parliament for years. Emergency law has allowed authorities to detain suspects for long periods without formal charges. It has been used frequently against members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other opponents of the regime, many of whom have been tortured.
Nearly 100 demonstrators, including members of the Enough movement and El Ghad party, protested outside parliament's gates. Many of them saw the new law as an attempt by the ruling party to further weaken the opposition ahead of the 2011 presidential elections. Mubarak has not announced if he will run, and there is widespread speculation that his son Gamal, who is inexperienced and unpopular, may instead succeed him.
"No transparent or fair elections have ever taken place under emergency rule, and this extension shows the regime's intentions to do the same during the upcoming elections," said Hassan Nafaa, general coordinator of the National Front for Change.
Hassan is a news assistant in The Times' Cairo Bureau.