Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 May 2006
Issue No. 793
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Authoritarian mechanics

For 25 years the emergency laws have fed terrorism rather than help combat it. Now they have been extended, writes Samer Shehata*

Last Sunday Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, citing the terrorist bombings in Sinai and recent sectarian violence in Alexandria, asked the People's Assembly to extend the emergency law for an additional two years. Before the end of the day's session the law had been extended. The emergency law, which has been in place since 1981 and must be renewed every three years, was due to expire at the end of May. It is a form of martial law, placing the country in a sate of emergency and providing exceptional powers to the security forces and the executive. Last fall, during the presidential campaign, President Hosni Mubarak promised voters he would lift the unpopular legislation if re-elected. But even before the most recent bombings the president had hinted he would extend the law for another 18 to 24 months, until suitable anti- terrorism legislation was drafted.

Extending the emergency law is no solution. It will have significant negative consequences for ordinary Egyptians and for the nation's political life as well as the government's credibility, at home and abroad. It is by no means clear how the law's extension will make Egyptians any safer or help the authorities to more effectively combat terrorism. The law has, after all, been in place for over a quarter century. Moreover, the indefinite detentions and mass arrests it permits sours the relationship between citizens and the security forces, a crucial relationship for effective intelligence gathering about militants, terrorists and their secret organisations. The heavy-handed police tactics used after the earlier Sinai bombings were widely criticised by local and international groups as counterproductive, damaging efforts to win the local population's trust, support and cooperation. Such methods are also morally reprehensible and do not address the root causes of terrorism. Increased police powers and a narrow focus on security will not solve the problem.

Neither is the argument that more time is needed in order to draft new anti-terrorism legislation before the emergency law can be lifted persuasive. For the last two years officials and informed sources have been openly discussing draft anti-terrorism legislation. There are even rumours that the law has already been completed. Last year it took the government little more than two months to draft, approve and ratify a constitutional amendment -- far more serious than a law -- that made the first multi- candidate presidential elections possible. It is hard to imagine a government that has had the last 25 years to ponder the eventual removal of the emergency law now needs an additional two years to do so. Indeed, there is growing concern among opposition parliamentarians and political observers that new anti-terror legislation will be nothing other than a repackaged emergency law that permanently gives the government many of the same wide- ranging powers it presently commands. Although there is no consensus that the emergency law has made Egyptians safer, there is widespread agreement that it has deformed the nation's political landscape and needlessly restricted individual liberties. The law allows the authorities to detain individuals without trial for periods of 45 days, which can be endlessly renewed. The law also restricts the ability of groups, including legal opposition parties and registered civil society organisations, from holding public rallies, protests and demonstrations. It provides the state with the power to monitor and shut down publications, including newspapers, and the right to search individuals and property at will, without cause or prior approval. These, and other powers, have regularly been exercised by the state in cases that have nothing to do with terrorism.

Egyptians are united in their desire for an end to the emergency law. The major opposition parties (the Wafd, Tagammu and Arab Nasserists), in addition to the Muslim Brotherhood, local human rights groups and civil society organisations have called for the lifting of the politically stifling legislation. Recently, a group of over 100 parliamentarians banded together and signed a petition calling for the removal of the law. Even the government's own National Council for Human Rights, led by former UN Secretary-General Botrous Botrous-Ghali, and whose members are appointed by the government, has repeatedly called for lifting the state of emergency.

Let us be under no illusions, however; lifting the emergency law will not lead automatically to a flourishing of democracy. A whole series of other laws and institutions function to limit political activity, freedom of the press, civil society and, ultimately, the rotation of power, severely restricting individual rights and political liberties in the process. The NGO law, which requires non-governmental organisations to be licensed by the state, the press law which threatens journalists with imprisonment in cases of libel, the Political Parties Committee whose approval is required for new political parties to be established and even certain articles in the Egyptian Constitution -- e.g. Article 77 which does not prescribe presidential term limits, and Article 76 which makes it virtually impossible for any group or individual other than the ruling party to nominate presidential candidates -- all serve to undermine democracy in the Arab world's most populous country. These laws and institutions furnish the legal and institutional infrastructure of authoritarianism in Egypt. But although removing the emergency law will not be enough, it is the necessary first step towards genuine political reform and democratisation.

Political reform and democratisation are directly related to the problem of terrorism in Egypt. In order to effectively reduce terrorism the government must open up more political space rather than further restrict it. Genuine political reform, resulting in better governance, the enhanced rule of law and increasing transparency will prove much more effective over the medium and long term in reducing political violence than restrictive legislation, coercion and a narrow focus on security. Greater political freedom will not only result in better governance which will, in turn, lead to increased domestic and international investment and economic vitality; it will create an Egypt in which the basic human dignity of all citizens is respected and where no one feels the need to resort to political violence because everyone has the opportunity to effect peaceful political change. Only then will the scourge of terrorism have been dealt with effectively.

* The writer is an Egyptian-American professor at Georgetown University.

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