By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 1, 2006
CAIRO, April 30 -- The government of President Hosni Mubarak extended a 25-year-old emergency law by two years Sunday, despite his promise that it would be canceled and replaced with specific anti-terrorism measures.
No potential reform measure had been more anticipated than cancellation of the emergency law, which permits indefinite detention without trial and hearings of civilians by military courts, prohibits gatherings of more than five people, and limits speech and association.
Last year, President Bush demanded that Egypt take steps toward developing freedom of speech and organization as part of a U.S. drive to democratize the Middle East. Egypt, a staunch U.S. ally, receives $2 billion in aid annually from the United States.
Egyptian officials signaled in recent weeks that the U.S. pressure had eased and that recent reforms had gone far enough. Mubarak heralded the status quo two weeks ago, telling reporters that a new law would take 18 months to two years to formulate.
In parliament, the speaker, Fathi Sorour of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party, told representatives that Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif had informed him "of the president's decision to extend the state of emergency." The law was instituted after Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated in 1981, and was set to expire in June.
Word of the decision spread in Cairo, and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a formally banned Islamic organization that is the largest opposition force in parliament, wore black sashes inscribed with the slogan "No to the Emergency Law" to the legislative session Sunday. Technically, the Brotherhood's parliamentary members are independents. The organization had pressed for cancellation of the law so that it could operate fully as a political organization instead of informally and partly underground.
"The extension is aimed at silencing the Brotherhood and maintaining the status quo," said Aly Abdul Fattah, a Brotherhood official. "This extension is a lethal poison for Egyptian political life."
Hisham Kassem, editor of the independent Masri al-Yom newspaper, predicted: "Nothing can be done. Mubarak will make no changes. Mubarak will die in office."
In effect, 20 months of intense political debate and pressure from Egyptians and foreign governments to democratize ended with only one major government-initiated reform: Last spring, Mubarak decreed multi-candidate presidential elections to replace the vote by referendum for a single candidate. The government also permitted independent newspapers to open, although reporters are still subject to arbitrary arrest.
Otherwise, the government has operated much as it has for 50 years: behind a cordon of police powers, extraordinary laws and hordes of compliant if ineffective bureaucrats. Last year, police routinely broke up or hemmed in demonstrations against Mubarak's rule. The government prosecuted and jailed Ayman Nour, the distant second-place finisher in the presidential vote, on charges of falsifying government documents. The star witness in the case recanted his testimony, saying it was tortured out of him. Nonetheless, Nour is serving a five-year prison term.
Brotherhood political activists were routinely rounded up as were members of secular pro-democracy movements. Last May, just hours after a visit by first lady Laura Bush during which she praised Mubarak for a "wise and bold" step of holding competitive presidential elections, police singled out and beat female protesters in the streets of Cairo.
During parliamentary elections last fall, police blocked the polls in districts where opposition candidates ran strongly and killed 11 Egyptians in different parts of the country when voters mounted protests and tried to rush precinct offices. Two prominent judges face expulsion from the bench for denouncing electoral fraud.
Parliamentary extension of the emergency law was a foregone conclusion: The National Democratic Party controls about 350 out of 454 seats.
Prime Minister Nazif put the extension in the context of bombings of a Sinai Peninsula resort, in which at least 18 people died, and "dangers which threaten us and our future."
"We will never use the emergency law other than to protect the citizen and the security of the nation and combat terrorism," he said.
Negad Borai, who heads the Association for the Promotion of Democracy, countered that view. "The freezing of political life in Egypt means support for terror and extremism," he said in an interview. "Emergency law lets the police take the easy way out. Just arrest and beat. Then this violence breeds more violence."
Borai criticized the Bush administration, saying that "the U.S. stand has become vague, and this encourages the regime to continue its misrule."