The End of the State of Emergency in Egypt
Five years ago Mina, a young Egyptian Copt from the heart of the middle class, decided he wanted to be politically active. The university student felt that political engagement was essential to bringing about socio-economic improvement.
However, the young man who was born “strictly under the state of emergency in 1987” was hesitant to pursue his wish. “To be very honest, I thought that it was very risky,” Mina said. “Under the emergency law I could have been easily harassed by the security forces. I saw it happening to my friends who got politically active. I saw them getting arrested and being taken into police custody. I have to admit I was afraid to be subjected to what I saw my friends going through.”
THE STATE OF EMERGENCY: During the past 45 years, since Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, the state of emergency has been imposed on and off — more on than off. After the assassination of former president Anwar El-Sadat on 6 October 1981, the state of emergency was declared.
At the time, Hosni Mubarak, the vice president, promised that it would not be long before the state of emergency was terminated. However, throughout his years in office as president, which dramatically ended when Mubarak was forced to step down on 11 February 2011 under the pressure of the waves of demonstrations of the 25 January Revolution, the state of emergency never ended despite a promise the president made upon his running for a fifth term in office in 2005 to pursue the adoption of an anti-terror law in order to end the state of emergency.
As Mariam, a well-off 29-year-old Muslim political activist recalls, “the call to end the state of emergency was the biggest — and to be honest the only serious — demand we had in the 25 January (2011) demonstration. At the time we did not anticipate that the demonstration would be that big or that it would turn into a revolution,” she said.
The call for an end to the state of emergency was, Mariam said, coupled with the demands for the removal of Habib El-Adli, the minister of interior who for 17 years used the state of emergency to forcefully quell any serious opposition to the extension of the ailing rule of Mubarak and for that matter the chances for the succession of the president’s younger son, Gamal Mubarak, to power.
“In our wildest dreams we did not think that matters would develop in the way they did and that it would be Mubarak himself who would be removed,” Mariam said.
When Mubarak fell, however, the state of emergency continued for a year and a half longer. It was only on Saturday that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) decided to refrain from calling on parliament to renew the state of emergency.
MEET THE STATE OF EMERGENCY: “It is quite something that the state of emergency has come to an end — even though I know we are still living under extraordinary conditions,” said Mina. He added, “But at least one can say to oneself that the state of emergency is over after all we’ve been through.”
The state of emergency is a package of extraordinary and almost extra-judiciary rules that allow for police forces to monitor citizens, listen in to their phone calls or violate the privacy of their mail and bank accounts without having to secure a permit from the prosecution. It also allows for police, upon the mere decree of the minister of interior, to apply open-ended administrative detention.
“And it has allowed state security forces to infiltrate every aspect of our life — not just the political but also the social and even the private,” said Mina.
During his years in social activism, Mina suffered endlessly from the heavy hand of the state of the emergency and subsequent police surveillance and intervention.
Working with a group of young Copts and Muslims who wished to strengthen the otherwise strained Muslim-Coptic relationship, Mina and his friends sought to hold community activities that bring the two sides together so that they would see that what they have in common is almost everything, despite the creed differences.
“Every time we tried to hold one of those events we were faced with state security harassment that got its strength from the state of emergency,” Mina recalled.
“Churches and mosques equally declined to work with us. They refused to help us bring the people together and they told us that the activities, social and cultural, we wanted to have, ran counter to the rules and norms of the state of emergency. I thought it was ridiculous that it went against the state of emergency to have a group of people from the same neighbourhood come together to discuss matters related to cleaning their neighbourhood, for example,” Mina recalls.
After being turned down so many times, Mina and his friends circumvented the rules. They would no longer announce the events as a joint Copt-Muslim gathering to discuss public matters but as a social gathering that required a meeting place as those at the disposal of many churches and mosques.
Then again, due to the “rules that state police imposed by virtue of the state of emergency, a detailed account about every gathering was forwarded by the church or the mosque that offered us the meeting place about the gathering and the matters that were discussed.”
Eventually, the state police were alerted to the activities of Mina and his friends, and their renewed requests to meet at any of the communal public facilities became more and more difficult to be met.
For her part, Mariam counted on the contacts of her father, himself a retired officer, to evade the yoke of the state of emergency. “Often my father would come to tell me that I should stop participating in political gatherings. He would share with me details of the meetings that were reported to him and his old friends were courteously advising him to keep me away from ‘the bad boys and girls'”, Mariam recalled. “It was amazing that our meetings which usually took place in public places like caf³©s and restaurants were so closely monitored. It was scary,” she said.
VIRTUALLY ESCAPING EMERGENCY: However, both Mina and Mariam decided to continue. And after the arrest and killing of activist Khaled Said by police in Alexandria on 7 June 2010, these two and many other young men and women decided to reach the ceiling of their activism — “despite the continued state of emergency”.
And like many other men and women of their generation who started the 25 January Revolution, Mina and Mariam depended much on the virtual world of the Internet to escape, even if partially, state police surveillance and the hassle of the state of emergency.
“At the beginning [the state police] were not paying attention to the Internet. It took them a while before they understood its tools, and that gave us space,” said Mariam.
“And at the end of the day it was not very easy for them to infiltrate us because ultimately we had a better command of the endlessly advancing technology,” said Mina. “Their only way to completely stop us from communicating through the virtual world of the Internet was to block all together, as they did in the first week of the revolution, but that was not something they could afford to do earlier.”
NOT VERY SIGNIFICANT: Today, Mina and Mariam find it “essentially dignifying that the state of emergency was finally suspended.”
“I think it remains a step forward even if realistically I know that it is not very significant given that the tools of surveillance and torture that had been developed over 30 years would not be immediately dismissed,” Mariam argued.
Not significant at all is what the prominent political figure George Ishak thinks of the announced end to 30 years of the state of emergency on Saturday.
“Today, as last week, as last year, as it has been for decades, our phones are tapped and our meetings are listened in to,” said Ishak.
SHAFIK AND THE STATE OF EMERGENCY: According to Ishak, “the rules of the state of emergency remain fully in place despite the announcement of its end” and it could well be re-imposed if the current presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik “ascends to power because this is a man whose whole nomination is based on the call to quell political activism and demonstrations. His campaign is essentially run by a former minister of interior and it has endless elements of the defunct state security. He himself spoke of executions,” said Ishak.
Shafik, a retired military man and Mubarak’s last prime minister, and who came second to Mohamed Mursi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, in the first round of presidential elections, was recorded in a meeting of key entrepreneurs as promising to apply a firm hand in quelling all forms of demonstrations and strikes when elected president and to even apply “executions” to serve this purpose. The promise of Shafik was met with much applause from a clearly excited audience.
Recently, as the video was widely shared on the social media forums, Shafik’s campaign issued a statement arguing the extract in the video was taken out of context.
Consequently, Ishak finds it premature to celebrate the end of the state of emergency. In fact, he says that what should be anticipated now is not just the resumption of the state of emergency but indeed the resumption of the briefly and partially interrupted Mubarak regime “with all the violations that came with it”.
EMERGENCY OBJECTIVES: Political researcher Soulimane Chafik goes a step further in the anticipation of the reinstitution of the old regime — come the reinstatement of the state of emergency or not.
In Chafik’s analysis, what is round the corner is not necessarily the exact reinstitution of the Mubarak regime but indeed the full rebooting of all the interest groups across the board, from officers to clergy.
According to Chafik, the whole point of keeping the state of emergency for 30 years was to keep the Mubarak regime together. And, he says that in this case the state of emergency and its rules were not just matters for law enforcement to pursue but was a mission that many quarters pursued, in the police sector and in religious institutions.
“They all have interests in keeping the regime in place and they all contributed each in his way to the prolonged state of emergency,” argued Chafik.
Today, he added, the choice of some of the key figures of the Coptic Church, “and not the temporary patriarch of the church”, to prompt followers across the nation to vote for Shafik is only part of “keeping the set up by which these figures, and not the Coptic people, had benefited.
“Those bishops who worked with a group of Coptic businessmen and with key state security figures to solicit enormous moral support for Shafik and financial support for his campaign did so for a reason.”
The reason, the Coptic researcher explained, was to revive the state of “Coptic fear”. Opposed and firmly critical as he openly is to groups of political Islam, Chafik is equally opposed to the use of “both the state and the church of the Islamist scarecrow to impose their control.”
“The bishops involved in the dismaying support of Shafik were not comfortable at all with the new trend of Copts, which came with the 25 January Revolution, to be fully re-integrated in society as full-fledged citizens rather than to be confined to the walls of the church as they have been for decades and as those bishops want them to be.”
For Chafik, the Islamist scarecrow was only a complementary function to the state of emergency and the anticipated but never issued anti-terrorism law. “The objective is to make everybody too afraid to pursue an alternative because supposedly the radical and militant Islamist groups were the only alternative available,” he added.
In fact, Chafik argues, the state of emergency never served the objective it was meant for: to protect the people from terrorism.
Indeed, Chafik, 59, who lived the better part of his life under the state of emergency, counts scores of Copts who were killed and many churches and Coptic interests attacked under the state of emergency.
Chafik argues that awareness that is integration and not the state of emergency is picking up in the Coptic community “despite the attempts of some officers and some bishops.” So yes, it is true that Ahmed Shafik got over 1.5 million votes from the Copts but it is equally true that about one million Copts also voted for Hamdeen [Sabahi] and Amr Moussa and even for Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, despite his Islamist background.”
Sabahi, Abul-Fotouh and Moussa came third, fourth and fifth in the first round of the presidential elections.
A Sabahi supporter himself, Chafik argues that none of these three would have violated Coptic rights; rather the opposite. But none of them, he adds, would have kept the old parameters of the fear-based power monopolisation that the state of emergency stood for. This is why the “patriarch-officers who have been made too close to the state police by virtue of the endless interference of the latter in church affairs under the state of emergency wanted to support he who would have helped them regain their monopoly on power.”
A MATTER OF PROCEDURES: Parliament has been put under much pressure to consider extending the state of emergency, MP Essam El-Erian said during a parliamentary session early in the week. “But we declined,” added the member of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, an exemplary victim of the state of emergency.
Nirvana Shawki, a member of the political bureau of the newly established party Misr Al-Horreya (Free Egypt), says the political cost of pursuing an attempt to extend the state of emergency would have been too high and it would have been opposed not just by the traditional political forces but by new parties established after the revolution.
According to the regulations of the Constitutional Declaration issued by SCAF in March 2011 the extension of the state of emergency needed parliament’s approval and passed only by a public referendum.
“That was too complicated for SCAF and it was easier to simply let go of the state of emergency,” argues political researcher and activist Mohamed Agati.
“It would have been very difficult in the phase between round one and round two of the presidential elections — whose campaigns, by the way, have been held under extraordinary laws in violation of the requirements of fair and free elections — to call for a referendum on the extension of the emergency law,” Agati said. He added that it would have also been “difficult to pursue the matter with parliament while in its state of confusion over the formation of the constituent assembly tasked with drawing up the constitution.
Like other political activists and analysts, Agati is very down to earth about the real significance of the end of the state of emergency after 30 years. “It is basically symbolic,” he suggested.
AVAILAB0LE ALTERNATIVES: In any case, argues prominent human rights activist Mahmoud Qandil, there is a big bag of ordinary laws and regulations that could allow for the police bodies, and for that matter the military police, to pursue the same procedures, or almost the same, that were in place under the state of emergency.
According to Qandil, “the many violations that marked the first round of presidential elections do not indicate that the rulers of the country wish to maximise the rule of law. They turned a blind eye to gross violations and as such it means very little to announce the suspension of the state of emergency.”
IN CONCRETE TERMS: Today, Qandil is not even certain whether the end of 30 years of the state of emergency would have a direct impact on the level of political engagement on the part of citizens whose emergency state fears have prompted their predominant political apathy — until 25 January Revolution when masses of young people launched demonstrations in many governorates and recruited others from all walks of life.
“But at the end of the day we are now in a situation whereby the political forces have no longer any legal excuse for their reluctant presence among the masses which were handicapped by the state of emergency,” Qandil said.
This political revitalisation, Qandil argued, might be one of the few concrete positive outcomes of the official elimination of the state of emergency.
Whether this new reality will affect the performance of police forces is something that this human rights activist is not so sure about. He argues that the “creed of violations of human rights” cannot be simply switched off a day after the state of emergency has been annulled. “It is a well established creed that has been in place for decades and that cannot be changed in weeks or months; it will take years,” he added.
Qandil is concerned that if Shafik is president Òê”– something that he like many other activists believe is a done deal anyway — the starting point for the reform of the security creed would be delayed “not just because Shafik is not running on a rights agenda but also, and even more significantly, because the largest part of police cadres are not ready for the change of creed.”
Obviously, Qandil suggested, there is clear indication in the recently issued verdict that acquitted six assistants of the minister of interior on charges related to the killing of civil demonstrators during the early days of the revolution.
“The issue here is not just about the acquittal of these assistants but about what this acquittal will mean to their replacements and other police officers. It means you can literally get away with murder,” Qandil suggested. Qandil insists the verdict, which came less than 24 hours after the state of emergency was suspended, is crucial in assessing the significance of ending the state of emergency.
TIME FOR REPARATION AND JUSTICE: For Mohamed Lotfi, the Cairo-based spokesman for Amnesty International, one crucial issue that should be examined in relation to the termination of 30 years of the state of emergency is the right of reparation for all citizens whose rights were violated in many ways under this extraordinary state.
“Unless reparation is made then there would hardly be any serious deterrence against recommitting the same violations that were conducted under the state of emergency,” Lotfi argued.
Moreover, he added, with the elimination of the state of emergency, all extraordinary tribunals should be immediately dissolved and all suspects referred to ordinary tribunals.
“When we look at the Emergency State Security Courts that for years issued harsh sentences, including the death penalty, against suspects on the basis of confessions extracted under horrible forms of torture, then we have to think that these tribunals should be eliminated and their verdicts re-examined,” Lotfi suggested.
Punishing the officers who violated citizens’ human rights under the extended umbrella of the state of emergency is also something that Lotfi finds necessary if the pattern of violations should at all, and later rather than sooner, be suspended. “Justice must be served and violators made accountable or else the cycle of violations will not be interrupted,” he argued.
Indeed, Lotfi reminds us that the shocking case of Khaled Said that constituted the very beginning of the revolution is only one of thousands of cases of police brutality against citizens under the umbrella of the state of emergency.
“Hundreds and thousands of people were held in administrative custody for years and there they were brutally violated,” Lotfi said. Today, he added, it is necessary not just to secure their reparation but also to make sure that others would not have to walk the same dark tunnel they went through.
“We should not forget the victims of torture and we should not confuse the announcement of the end of the state of emergency with the end of the state of torture and violations; one does not necessarily mean the other,” Lotfi insisted. He added that the “continued violations that have been committed” against activists since SCAF took over from Mubarak, a year and a half ago, and the “agenda of oppression of demonstrations” on which the next president of Egypt, possibly Shafik, is running should remind all concerned that the road ahead is still long.
THE REAL MESSAGE: For MP and political analyst Emad Gad, despite all the shortcomings it is still very important to have the state of emergency eliminated at a time of clear political turmoil that the country is passing through, with endless demands from the masses that are yet again demonstrating in Tahrir Square to exclude Shafik from the presidential race.
“The message is very significant. It says that unlike what we have been told over and over again, Egypt survived severe political turmoil with or without the state of emergency,” Gad said. As such, he added, “it would be very hard for the next president or the following one to offer any credible reason to retain the state of emergency.”
It is another hard battle, Gad argued, to curtail the other laws that could be twisted to allow for the violation of human rights by the state or at the hands of law enforcement forces.
By Dina Ezzat