By Ernesto Londono Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; 10:39 PM
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.
The government relied heavily on the law in the 1980s and '90s to suppress Islamist groups that set off bombs in Cairo and carried out an attack in the temple city of Luxor that killed more than 60 people, mostly foreign tourists.
Human rights activists say the government has used the law to round up political rivals and critics. Hundreds of journalists and rights activists have been detained during the recent unrest.
Under heavy U.S. pressure, Mubarak promised in 2005, ahead of his latest reelection, to replace the emergency law with a new counterterrorism law. He reneged on that promise, although the government announced in May that the law would be used only in cases involving terrorism and narcotics.
That announcement notwithstanding, scores of politicians were detained without formal charges in the lead-up to parliamentary elections in November. Partly as a result, the Muslim Brotherhood, the ruling party's main opposition, did not win a single seat in the new parliament.
"This regime cannot remain without the emergency" law, Mohammad Biltagi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, said Wednesday. "This regime cannot remain without using the security apparatus for political goals rather than for the protection of its citizens."
Protesters who flooded downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square in recent days have called for a repeal of the law.
"I regard the emergency law as the most important of our demands," said demonstrator Mohammed Mahrous, 62. "Today a policeman can arrest you and take you to prison without a trial and without knowing what you are accused of, and you can be imprisoned for years."
Fear of the law has deterred many Egyptians from joining the protests. Many demonstrators also worry about reprisals if the Mubarak regime survives.
"I have a feeling of insecurity," said Youssef Samy, 18, a university student who said he was afraid to join the demonstrations. "I was scared to go to jail. If I got arrested, who would find me?"
Correspondent Leila Fadel and special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.