Egypt's long-standing emergency law becomes lightning rod as protests continue
CAIRO - For 30 years, Egyptians who protested their government or organized a political party did so knowing they could be arrested under an emergency law that gives the government broad powers to act against perceived threats to the country's stability.
That law, long an object of derision among Egyptians who saw it as a crude tool of control, is at the center of a dispute between Cairo and Washington - with U.S. officials urging that the law be scrapped and President Hosni Mubarak's government refusing to yield.
Vice President Biden delivered the Obama administration's most pointed appeal on the issue this week when he urged Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman to immediately repeal the long-standing emergency rules.
The Egyptian reply was the same as it has been since 1981: Not yet.
"Right now, as we speak, we have 17,000 prisoners loose in the streets," following prison breaks that occurred early in the current protests, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in an interview broadcast Wednesday by "PBS NewsHour." "How can you ask me to sort of disband the emergency law while I'm in difficulty?"
There has been a litany of such excuses over the years - trouble with Islamist militants in the early 1990s; popular anger over the Iraq war or the Israeli-Palestinian dispute; the need to combat terrorism and drug trafficking.
Critics say that through it all, the real aim has been control. In a country ostensibly heading toward open elections, it is a vital issue. Under the emergency rules, political gatherings of more than a handful of people can be held only with the state's permission, and the government has allowed few new parties to organize or opposition groups to gather.
"The culture that has emerged as a result of this law over three decades is one in which the security forces have a widespread and deeply held conviction that they are above the law and that the constitution is irrelevant," said Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. "Because there is a state of emergency, they can get away with murder."
"They keep saying, 'We can't do it now,' for all sorts of reasons," said a senior Western diplomat, who requested anonymity to speak about bilateral discussions on a sensitive issue. "They could do it."
The current state of emergency was imposed after the October 1981 assassination of Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat, who was killed by Islamic extremists.
The law authorizing the president to declare a state of emergency has been on the books since 1967. Egyptian leaders have activated it almost uninterruptedly since then.
When activated, the law allows security forces to detain people without warrants, circumvents traditional criminal courts to keep suspects detained for years, permits interceptions of communication and restricts gatherings such as protests.