Until further notice
Gamal Essam El-Din
reports on the parliamentary debate that resulted in a two-year extension of the state of emergency
President Hosni Mubarak's election platform included promises to revoke laws restricting press freedom and judicial independence and to abrogate the 25-year-old state of emergency. Eight months after his re-election, however, municipal elections have been postponed for two years and the government is involved in an increasingly bitter conflict with journalists and judges. The crunch, though, came on Sunday when the People's Assembly voted to extend the emergency law for another two years.
Sunday morning's debate over extending the quarter of a century old state of emergency was short and well-orchestrated, said parliamentary sources who attended the session. For the ruling NDP, which dominates the assembly, the result was assured. The only outstanding question was how many NDP deputies would depart from the party line in the face of what would be vociferous opposition to the extension from Muslim Brotherhood MPs.
NDP concern to head off even a small revolt was manifested in an emergency meeting, called on Saturday night, to which NDP MPs were summoned to meet the chairman of the Policies Committee, President Mubarak's son Gamal Mubarak, NDP Secretary-General Safwat El-Sherif, Secretary for Organisational Affairs Ahmed Ezz and Chief of Presidential Staff Zakaria Azmi.
According to a source within the NDP the ruling party's deputies were told to put differences aside and vote for the extension, which would be presented to parliament the following day.
Sunday was selected, said the source, not only because "the bombings in Sinai and sectarian strife in Alexandria were fresh in people's minds", but also because the following day, Monday, was a public holiday, thus reducing the possibility of demonstrations and sit-ins being organised to protest against the extension.
Inevitably, news of the Saturday evening meeting reached opposition MPs, and on Sunday Al-Ahram appeared with a front page story announcing that the People's Assembly would be asked to vote for an extension of emergency rule that same day. The opposition quickly mobilised .
Hamdi Hassan, a Brotherhood MP, told Al-Ahram Weekly that "the opposition was expecting the extension request anytime and had anticipated that the NDP would try and spring a surprise."
The Al-Ahram story, however, provided opposition MPs with sufficient warning to at least launch a symbolic counter-offensive. The majority arrived at the People's Assembly wearing white and black sashes on which was written "No to the state of emergency". And in a statement submitted to assembly speaker Fathi Sorour, Hassan alleged that NDP MPs had been offered sums ranging from between LE15,000 to LE40,000 to vote for the extension.
It was on Sorour's shoulders that the burden of organising the debate fell. First Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif read the extension request. It would take two years, said Nazif, to draw up the anti-terror legislation that President Mubarak had promised would replace the emergency laws, and which will entail amending the constitution. He cited recent terrorist acts in Sinai and sectarian conflict in Alexandria to justify maintaining the state of emergency, pointing out that unlike on previous occasions the requested extension was for two not three years. Nazif also promised the emergency law would be invoked mainly in the battle against terrorism and drug-trafficking and not to limit political freedoms. Following Nazif's 15-minute statement the assembly adjourned to allow the general committee to examine the extension request. Half an hour later MPs were recalled for a plenary session.
The debate began noisily, with opposition members shouting "no to the state of emergency", and NDP MPs shouting back "no to terrorism". Before the session could degenerate further Sorour gave the floor to two senior NDP members, party spokesman Abdel-Ahad Gamaleddin and former whip Kamal El-Shazli. They were followed by Al-Wafd spokesman Mahmoud Abaza, who argued that the 25-year-old emergency law were in urgent need of scrutiny and a review of all politically restrictive clauses. He was followed by Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Saad El-Katatni, who managed a lacklustre speech in which he argued there was no need for the emergency law "since the penal code contains a lot of articles that can be invoked to fight terrorism". Sorour next gave the floor to 12 deputies, nine from the NDP, two from the Muslim Brotherhood and one independent. The request was then put to the vote. Of the 378 MPs in attendance 287 voted yes, 91 no. Just one NDP deputy, Taher Hozayen, from Isna in Upper Egypt, defied the party line, though Brotherhood MPs later questioned the tally, circulating the signatures of 111 MPs who claimed they had voted against the measure.
As expected, civil society and human rights organisations quickly mobilised against the move. George Ishaaq, coordinator of Kifaya, said the extension, passed off as an attempt to calm troubled waters, was in reality the equivalent of pouring oil on fire. "It comes," he noted, "at a time the government is cracking down on all political activists, ranging from the judiciary and journalists to dissent groups like Kifaya."
Mustafa El-Feki, NDP chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, concedes that the emergency law is widely detested. "It is like a poison," he said, "but in healing some diseases we must sometimes use poison."
Yesterday NDP MPs railed against Hassan, accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of slandering the ruling party. They asked Sorour to refer Hassan to the Ethics Committee over suggestions they had received bribes to vote for the extension.
"NDP MPs supported the measure because they believe it is in the interest of the country and its citizens, and not because they received any financial gain," said El-Shazli.
If that is the case, responded El-Katatni, then the Brotherhood "apologises and expresses its deep respect for NDP MPs".