Is Egypt’s “State of Emergency” Finally Over?

egyptian protester run tear gas

A masked Egyptian protester runs after picking up a tear gas canister fired by riot police during clashes near the interior ministry in Cairo on February 4, 2012. (Photo KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Last night at midnight, Egypt’s 31-year-old “Emergency Law” came to an end.  The law gave Egypt’s police and security forces widespread powers to arrest and detain Egyptian civilians.

Under Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, thousands of people experienced torture and other human rights abuses.  So far, government accountability for these violations has been almost nonexistent.

Egyptians may get the first steps towards accountability tomorrow, when a verdict is expected in the trial of Mubarak on charges of killing protesters during the “January 25 Revolution” last year. Some 840 protesters were killed and more than 6000 injured during the uprising that forced Mubarak to step down in February 2011.  But while significant, this trial does not delve into the human rights abuses under Mubarak’s rule for the three decades prior to the revolution. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

When Will Egypt's State of Emergency End?

The Egyptian government went before the United Nations Human Rights Council last month and insisted that there is no torture and that State of Emergency provisions are used only against terrorists.

Tell that to Dr. Taha Abdel Tawab.

The doctor, a well-known supporter of former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei, was allegedly taken to a state security office and tortured for his support for ElBaradi, who is frequently named as a potential opposition presidential candidate.  According to the Arab human rights organization ANHRI, Tawab was transferred to Senorus hospital in serious condition.

ANHRI has asked government officials to investigate the incident but say they have not received a response.  Egypt has a long history of failing to provide public, independent investigations of security officers accused of torture.

The incident comes just days after Amnesty International called upon the Egyptian government to implement UN recommendations that would end torture and other abuses done in the name of security.

The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights’ findings, made public on March 9, criticized abuses made in the name of national security in Egypt.  The report criticized the wide discretion allowed to the SSI and commented that “SSI officers in practice enjoy carte blanche in deciding on whom to arrest”.

The Egyptian government claims emergency powers are used only against terrorists, but novelist Musaad Abu Fagr has been in administrative detention since February 2008, despite obtaining several court orders for his release.

The Egyptian government claims emergency powers are used only against terrorists, but novelist Musaad Abu Fagr has been in administrative detention since February 2008, despite obtaining several court orders for his release.

Currently, it remains unclear how many people are held without charge or trial in administrative detention under the Emergency Law by order of the Minister of Interior, as the authorities refuse to disclose this information, but they may number several thousand. Some have been held continuously for years under a succession of detention orders despite obtaining court orders for their release.

The Egyptian government immediately demurred, stating that Emergency Law, which has been in effect for nearly three decades, is used primarily to combat terrorism and drug trafficking although, in fact, it is also used to detain bloggers and other peaceful critics, such as Dr. Taha Abdel Tawab.

The Egyptian claim is nonsense.  Emergency powers have long been used to prosecute political opponents, journalists, secularists, intellectuals, Islamists, women, religious minorities, gays and just about any group outside of the control of the regime.

Change is coming to Egypt.  The actions the government takes now will help guide what direction that change takes.  The best thing for the Mubarak regime to do is to read the UN Special Rapporteur’s report and end arbitrary arrests, prolonged detention with out trial, torture and ill-treatment by security officials and unfair trials before emergency and military courts.

Update: Encouraging news should be announced as well.  Amnesty International welcomes the release March 9 of blogger Ahmed Mostafa, although the release was conditional on an apology and removal of his accusation of nepotism against a military official. He was facing a military trial.