At the end of October, with a Facebook post full of bombast, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi announced the end of the state of emergency that had been in effect in the country for 40 years, with a break between 2012 and 2017: “Egypt has become … an oasis of security and stability in the region. Hence it was decided … to cancel the extension of the state of emergency.”
The words would seem to herald a new era, but only on the surface. In fact, there are no reasons to be optimistic.
Only those who stubbornly fail to look can believe that the Egyptian security apparatus will cease to carry out mass arrests and imprison detainees without trial, to try civilians in military courts, to forcibly repress demonstrations and shut down civil society organizations defending human rights. The opening of the new Wadi al-Natroun prison complex, the largest in the country (where, government sources assure, the dignity and quality of life of the detainees will be guaranteed) should not leave room for delusion.
With the repeal of the state of emergency, Egypt has not returned—and will not return under the current regime—to the rule of law, which would see citizens respected by police and intelligence forces, tried in normal, not special courts and enjoying broad protections. And the political prisoners who are crowding the prisons by the thousands will not be freed.
Moreover, in the weeks preceding El Sisi’s announcement, the increase in the number of arrests and detentions for crimes of opinion—what the regime considers “crimes of terrorism”—has not gone unnoticed, seemingly so they would still temporarily fall under the state of emergency legislation. In any case, most of the prohibitions and sanctions are hidden within an endless mountain of laws, as well as deriving from the special status enjoyed by the Armed Forces.
The laws restricting the activities of human rights NGOs were enacted outside the framework of the state of emergency, and remain in effect. Such NGOs will still be forced to apply for permission to operate from the General Directorate of Intelligence, the Ministry of Interior, and, if all goes well, will have to wait months or perhaps years before they can carry out their monitoring work.
The media today is not freer or more protected than it was two months ago, and journalists will continue to self-censor so as to avoid having to face the much-feared “friendly telephone conversation” with officials of the security apparatus.
“Since the July 2013 military coup, the government has issued dozens of laws that must be amended or repealed. Otherwise, lifting the state of emergency will improve little or nothing,” explains Amr Magdi, Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Since El Sisi has been in power, Magdi recalls, the government has introduced dozens of laws giving the security forces exceptional powers. Such as the 2013 anti-protest law, which bans almost all forms of peaceful gatherings and has led to the arrest and prosecution of thousands of people. The 2015 Anti-Terrorism Law also makes civil disobedience a crime, and has been used with abandon to suppress peaceful dissent and silence those who criticize the El Sisi regime. The 2013 amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code remain in effect, allowing virtually indefinite pre-trial detention of suspects and adding more and more thousands more people, locked up without trial, to the mass of political detainees.
The repeal of the state of emergency is just smoke and mirrors, a means of avoiding sanctions on Egypt for human rights violations, such as the $130 million in aid frozen by the United States. But it is also—if not primarily—a convenient excuse for the US, EU members and other countries to continue providing military, economic and political support to Cairo despite the crimes committed by its security apparatus.
Human Rights Watch is calling for US President Joe Biden and other leaders to refuse to meet with El Sisi in the absence of significant progress in respecting human rights and the freedom of expression, and for them not to be satisfied with the lifting of the state of emergency.