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

Election Day in Egypt: Celebrations and Concerns

Egyptian protestors wave national flags

© STR/AFP/Getty Images

After decades of authoritarian rule, any opportunity for a popular election in Egypt should be a moment to celebrate.  But today’s national parliamentary election, while representing another step toward democracy, is also one that comes with significant concerns.

The underlying news today is that the strong turnouts, marred by four-hour delays at some sites, is a sign of the deep and passionate need of Egyptians to have a full stake in their political future. There are thousands of examples, but one that touched me was hearing from Radio Masr of an 82-year-old woman who was so happy that she was voting for the first time.


Broken Promises in Egypt

egypt protests

Egypt's interim military rulers have been accused of continuing Mubarak-era abuses© Mohamed Ali Eddin/Demotix

After three days of violence in the streets and with national parliamentary elections, scheduled for next week, now at risk, many people have concluded that the Egyptian uprising, so inspiring in the spring has gone off the tracks this fall.

The blame falls squarely on one source: Egypt’s ruling military council.  In a new report released today, Amnesty International accuses the military rulers of “crushing the hopes” of the spring protesters and in some cases the evidence of military abuses is now exceeding that of the Mubarak regime.


Egypt Returns to Bad Old Days of Repression

An Egyptian youth waves the national flag

An Egyptian youth waves the national flag with slogan in Arabic that reads. "25th of January, Day of the Freedom" © Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

It’s a return to the bad old days of repression for Egypt.

Last week, the military regime took a significant step back – severely threatening free speech, free association and assembly, and the right to strike – by expanding the government’s “emergency powers.”

These “State of Emergency” powers are the same ones the Mubarak regime used in its assault on human rights. The military authorities have essentially taken Egypt’s laws back to the bad old days of repression.

And with the coming parliamentary election, the timing couldn’t be worst.  The Egyptian people have waited so long for free elections, but even the most devoted of Egyptian democracy activists knew that a lot of difficult work had to be done in little time to build the foundations of free press, independent judiciary and other pillars needed for free elections.


Egypt: The Change Has to Be Institutional, Has to Be Now

The protests in Egypt erupted in the context of more than 30 years of severe repression © Sarah Carr

In Egypt these days, feelings of elation and dread, are often close together.  Today, elation that Google executive Wael Ghonim was released after almost two weeks of incommunicado detention; dread from news from reporters and other credible sources that former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience Karim Amer had been arrested.

Even as the protesters in Tahrir Square say they feel protected, arrests by security forces occur around the country.  And in the background, negotiations continue to seek a solution to the political crisis. Talks continue between the Mubarak government and opposition groups and between the U.S. government and all Egyptian players.  For many protesters, these talks seem distant from their ability to influence.

It’s easy to understand the protesters concerns. For three decades, this government has muzzled civil society, made torture systematic, restricted the free press and free political association, attacked an independent bar and judiciary and given impunity to police officers.  After all that, the protesters are hearing from many sources, including the U.S. government, that they must give these same people an opportunity to reverse all that.  With the arrests of Amer and others continuing, it’s easy to understand why they believe that won’t happen.

Nevertheless, with the negotiations continuing, Amnesty International’s message remains focused on institutional change that will prevent human rights abuses. We continue to call for solidarity with the Egyptian protesters.  Amnesty International UK is spearheading a Global Day of Solidarity this coming Saturday, Feb. 12.  We hope Amnesty International members around the world will participate in events in their community or sponsor events of their own.  (Contact your regional office to get an Egypt Activist Toolkit.)


Copt Blast Aftermath: When Will the State of Emergency Protect Egyptians?

A week after a New Year’s Day attack on a Copt church left 21 Egyptians dead and 79 wounded, it’s still hard to express in words the kind of madness behind the assault.  But it’s not hard to say this:  The State of Emergency, which Egypt’s parliament just renewed, isn’t protecting anyone but the government.

Egyptian Copt Elham Ayyub (L), a 44-year-old survivor of the New Year's Day church bombing in Alexandria, talks to wellwishers outside her house in Egypt's Mediterranean port city on January 3, 2011, three days after the bombing in which 21 people were killed, targeting Egypt's Christian communicty, the biggest in the Middle East. MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images

Obviously Egypt’s Copts feel the same.  In the aftermath of the explosion, many took to the streets to demand for their rights, for an end to the discrimination they face, and for the government to provide legitimate protection from bombings.  But instead of protection, when these people took to the streets to demand something from the government, they were met by security officials and violence ensued.

That’s the fate of most Egyptians, not just the Copts.  For decades incidents of armed violence have been met with new and greater powers for security forces, most of which are used not against armed groups but against everyday citizens.  Whether it systematic torture by police or continual assault on any meeting of the citizenry, most of the abuses against the citizens gain its “legitimacy” from powers taken by the Mubarak regime in the name of order and national security.

There’s a lot to say about the horrible attack on the Copt Church. Already much of the discussion has been overtaken by conspiracy theory.  But this is no conspiracy: The Egyptian government depends on armed violence to justify its anti-democratic and anti-human rights powers.  The authority bestowed upon it by the State of Emergency – now entering its fourth decade — hasn’t protected anyone in Egypt; it’s merely given the government the ability to put more people at risk.

What the Copts of Egypt need right now is the same thing every Egyptian needs: Freedom of expression, both in religious speech and the ability to meet in the streets without getting beat by security forces; a working legal system that actually looks to protect people, one free from torture and unfair trials and based on the rule of law rather than impunity; and a political system that is open to everyone rather than the politically favored.  The place to start on all of these accounts is to end the State of Emergency.

Update: Amnesty International released this statement Jan. 5 condemning the attack on the church and calling for improved protection of Copts.

Why Is Kareem Amer Still in an Egyptian Detention Center?

Kareem Amer

Kareem Amer should never have been in jail in the first place.  Now the Egyptian blogger and prisoner of conscience is wondering why he remains in jail after serving the entirety of his four-year sentence.

Amer, who was jailed for criticizing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Islam on his blog, is being held at a State Security Intelligence (SSI) detention center in Alexandria despite being due for release on Nov. 5. Lawyers from the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) reported that he has been beaten and abused by State Security Intelligence (SSI) officers.

This isn’t the first time Egyptian officials have held individuals beyond the termination of their sentence.  In fact many who are detained for political activities never even make it to trial.

The State of Emergency, which has been in force in Egypt since 1981, gives the government sweeping powers to detain individuals.  Time and time again, authorities have used these powers arbitrarily and aggressively with the intention of muzzling civil society. The continued detention of Kareem Amer is part of that picture.

But compared to other recent events that seemed to offer hope that the government showed partial signs of liberalization, this new step raises disturbing questions.  What stands out about this case is the high level of interest it has received by US leaders, who have raised concerns about the charges against Amer from the very beginning.  In short, the US government has done just about everything we would want them to do when faced with a human rights violation in an allied state like Egypt.

And yet, we are left with the current situation: Amer, beaten and still detained, not even in a public prison but a notorious SSI detention center. It’s hard not to speculate that certain Egyptian security officials decided to use Amer to send a message that nobody in the US, in the West or even in Egypt is going change Egypt’s record on human rights.

If that is true, it is a reminder that to be effective, human rights work must be based on a single standard. Focusing on favored individual cases never provides a long-term solution and rarely helps the specific individual. If the US government wants Kareem Amer to be released, their best tool is to insist that Egypt release all prisoners of conscience including the imprisoned Muslim Brothers, and – as Amnesty calls for in its statement – “curb the powers of the SSI and ensure that SSI officials who breach the law or are responsible for abusing prisoners are brought to justice.”