Activists fight revival of emergency law

Story highlights

  • Measure that limits freedom of assembly, allows arrest without charges is expanded
  • Thousands in prison under the law, rights activists say
  • Revolutionaries demanded an end to the law earlier this year
  • Activists see move as a step backwards
Ahmed Atef, 32, recalls a day in the summer of 2004 when he was abducted from his family's upper-class suburban home in Cairo in a predawn raid by President Hosni Mubarak's security forces.
The men who arrested him told his shocked parents that they were taking him to be investigated and would bring him back shortly. But Atef did not return home that day nor the next.
In fact, his whereabouts were unknown to his family for more than four weeks, and his frantic parents could do nothing but search for him in prisons across the country. At the time, Atef had just graduated from Cairo University's Faculty of Medicine.
He tells CNN he was blindfolded, shoved into the back of a stuffy police van and taken to State Security Headquarters in Nasr City.
"I spent the next 35 days in a tiny, dark prison cell. Every day I would wake up to the cries of people -- who were apparently being tortured -- begging for mercy. It was a nerve-wracking experience."
His voice falters and his eyes swell up with tears as he recounts the painful story of his detention. "Luckily I wasn't tortured myself, although I was threatened with electrocution if I lied. The interrogator repeatedly asked where I hang out, who I associate with and who had converted me to Salafism. I insisted I wasn't a Salafi."
Atef's only crime was that he had befriended a Salafi Islamist and performed Friday prayers at a mosque frequented by Islamist groups. He was released after being sternly warned not to associate with Islamists in future. His parents say the experience has traumatized him to this day.
Atef is one of thousands of Egyptians who have been arrested and detained without charge under Egypt's infamous emergency law -- in place since 1981.
According to the Human Rights Organization for the Assistance of Prisoners, an estimated 23,000 Egyptians have been detained under the law in the last 30 years. Thousands still languish in prisons to this day, according to rights activists.
One of the main demands of the revolutionaries in the uprising in Tahrir Square earlier this year was the lifting of the stifling law, which allows for arbitrary arrests and detention of citizens without charge and limits freedom of assembly.
In a surprise announcement in early September, however, Minister of Information Ossama Heikal informed a shocked Egyptian public of the government decision to revive the draconian emergency law in a wider scope. He listed a number of new offences punishable by the law in state security courts including damage to state property, disrupting people's work, holding protests that block streets or cause traffic jams, spreading rumors and inciting violence. On May 2010, ousted President Hosni Mubarak had limited the scope of the law to terrorism and drug-related crimes.
Members of the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) defended the move, insisting that the law was "necessary to restore order and stability." In a TV appearance, Gen. Mamdouh Shaheen, SCAF spokesman, said, "What we are seeing on the Egyptian street is terrorism. Firm measures are needed to curb the violence."
The announcement on the imposition of martial law came days after enraged protesters wielding hammers and iron bars tried to storm the Israeli Embassy in Giza. Angered by the killing of five Egyptian security guards by Israeli security forces who were chasing militants near the Egyptian-Israeli border, the protesters destroyed a concrete wall that had been built to shield the embassy against such attacks
The revival of the emergency law has provoked an outcry from rights activists and revolutionaries who see it as a step back toward the repressive ways of the Mubarak regime.
Defying a ban on large gatherings, hundreds of activists from 30 revolutionary movements and political parties returned to Tahrir Square Friday in what they named "The No to Emergency" protest to express their outrage at the latest SCAF measure.
"The emergency law is a license for further oppression and injustice," read a placard raised by an activist in Tahrir.
Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, described the decision by the ruling SCAF as a "serious development reflecting a total miscomprehension by the military authorities of the demands of the January 25 Revolution. It also signals that we are not going to see any kind of reforms or democratization as long as the military is in power, she told CNN.
Referring to the recent attack on the Israeli Embassy, Morayef said it was the use of excessive force by riot police that had resulted in counter-violence being used by the protesters.
"Rather than brutal crackdowns on peaceful protesters, the military authorities should prioritize comprehensive institutionalized reforms of the police and security forces," she said.
The activists in Tahrir fully agreed. "Those who committed the acts of violence in front of the Israeli Embassy last week were thugs and criminals sent to wreak havoc and give the revolutionaries a bad name. We only use peaceful methods to express our demands," said Ahmed Mourad, a teacher and member of the activist group called Youth for Justice and Freedom. "We reject all forms of violence and will not allow anyone to taint our image or our revolution."
Rights activist Hisham Qassem, meanwhile, downplayed SCAF's latest decision, describing it as a jittery reaction to the attack on the Israeli Embassy. He pointed out that million-people marches continue to take place in Egyptian cities, rendering the emergency law "null and void." He affirmed that the law can no longer be applied in the new post-revolutionary atmosphere of free expression.
But many ordinary Egyptians -- becoming increasingly frustrated with the continued strikes, the deteriorating economic conditions, the lax security and rising crime rate --- welcomed the SCAF decision.
"The military is doing what is best for us," said Heba Aref, a 54-year-old housewife. "It is for our own good and safety. Only the armed forces are capable of restoring law and order. I fully support their decision. Enough chaos."
"It is the only way to counter the violence we are witnessing on the streets," agreed Hashem Kotby, a 37-year-old civil engineer.
The return of martial law is only part of a wider crackdown on civil liberties in the post-revolutionary era. In recent days, Minister Ossama Heikal has announced that no more licenses would be issued for new private broadcast channels. He also issued a stern warning to TV channels and media organizations against inciting violence.
Meanwhile, the offices of Al Jazeera Mubashir, an Al Jazeera International news network affiliate, were ransacked last week by Egyptian security forces. Equipment from the network was seized and an engineer operating the channel was detained.
The government said residents in the neighborhood had filed complaints that the station was noisy and was disturbing public peace. An ensuing probe revealed that the network had no license, hence violating Egyptian media laws.
The attack on the network -- the coverage of which is almost entirely devoted to developments in post-revolutionary Egypt, including street protests --- was reminiscent of a similar attack on the Cairo offices of Al Jazeera International during the uprising in February. It evoked an outcry from journalists and rights activists.
"The military must realize it can no longer silence opposing voices. They must learn from Mubarak's mistakes and realize that there is no going back to the old ways," said Ibrahim Badawy, a journalist with the independent newspaper el Youm el Sabe.
A media blackout on Mubarak's trial, the investigation and intimidation of journalists and bloggers critical of the armed forces and the military trials for civilians are just some of the interim government's controversial policies that have pro-democracy activists worried for the future.
Analysts say that elections scheduled for later this fall will be the real test for SCAF's willingness to enforce the rule of law in the post-revolutionary era.
The activists are calling for changes to the electoral system that would allow voting to be fully based on the proportional party system. In its current form, the electoral system -- where half the seats are to be determined by individual candidacy lists --- is particularly culpable to bribery and fraud, they argue, adding that this may allow remnants of the former ruling party NDP to regain control of parliament.
Some opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile argue that elections cannot take place while the emergency law is in force as it would hamper the campaigning process.
It is not surprising that the protesters in Tahrir Square called for the immediate lifting of martial law on Friday. They also made impassioned demands for a definite timeline for military handover to civilian rule --demands that Egyptians like Atef, who have suffered injustice under an oppressive regime, wholeheartedly support.