As has become a regular occurrence, today saw throngs of Egyptian activists gathering in Tahrir Square. The focus of their anger this time was the SCAF’s reactivation of the Emergency Law. Although numbers were smaller than expected – perhaps reflecting a degree of protest ‘fatigue’, or maybe anger at previous tactics that resulted in the storming of the Israeli Embassy – today’s demonstration deserves attention.
In place almost constantly in Egypt since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the Emergency Law famously allowed Mubarak to suspend the basic rights of individuals, prohibiting demonstrations, censoring newspapers, and detaining people indefinitely without charge. The suspension of the Emergency Law has been among the April 6th Movement’s key demands. On this week’s evidence, they are unlikely to achieve it anytime soon.
Under Mubarak, the Emergency Law’s usage had to be approved by the Egyptian parliament. In many political systems, the decision to renew laws granting the executive extraordinary powers to detain citizens, prevent private gatherings, and issue decrees, would have been the subject of extensive deliberations. In the Egyptian case, the ratification was simply a familiar ritual that passed with little controversy reflecting the impotence of a parliament beholden to the regime.
All this begs the question: how much better is the SCAF’s unilateral decision to reaffirm the Law? As with the justifications of the Mubarak era, the rationale presented this week is problematic. For example, many of its specific provisions for maintaining order — such as carjacking or drug-dealing — are already criminalised under the normal penal code. Although the previous process by which the Emergency Law passed was undoubtedly deeply flawed, once could argue that it at least came under greater scrutiny than is the case in the current state of affairs.
It is of course flippant to argue that the Mubarak era was better than life under the SCAF. But this week’s development is a stark reminder that there may be a degree of truth in accusations that the military council is little better than its ageing predecessor.
Edit: As one contributor has pointed out, the reasons for mistrust of the Emergency Law have differed. When Mubarak was in charge, the Law represented a veil of unaccountability which obscured the disappearance of thousands. Under the SCAF it has been used in a more targeted manner against activists who seek to rock the boat. In this context it has also become particularly controversial due to its role in legitimising military trials for civilian detainees. Over the past 6 months, 12,000 have been imprisoned through these courts, a staggering number compared to the 2,000 sentenced by the same means during Mubarak’s 30-year rule.