A general view of Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt

Egypt ends its state of emergency amid intense criticism of its human rights record

Egypt has ended its state of emergency after four years. Samer Shehata, professor of Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma, tells The World's Marco Werman that the move is geared more toward the international community than Egyptian citizens.

The World

A general view of Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, March 29, 2020.

Nariman El-Mofty/AP/File photo

For the first time in four years, Egypt is no longer under a state of emergency. The government of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi made the decision following years of criticism from human rights advocates.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi announced his decision in a Facebook post. He said the move came because “Egypt has become an oasis of security and stability in the region.”

Related: Activists look to Congress after Biden requests military aid for Egypt without human rights conditions

Egypt has been under a continuous state of emergency since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, with the exception of a few years following the 2011 revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak. The state of emergency was reinstated in 2017 after two Coptic churches in the country were bombed by an ISIS affiliate.

Related: Powerful countries break their silence on Egypt's human rights abuses

The state of emergency allowed for arrests without warrants, the swift prosecution of suspects and the establishment of special courts.

Whether this move will help imprisoned writers, lawyers and activists is still unclear.

Professor Samer Shehata, an associate professor in Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma, joined The World's host Marco Werman from Washington to break down what this decision may mean for people inside Egypt. 

Marco Werman: Samer, can you tell us why the state of emergency was put in place to begin with?
Samer Shehata: Well, the most recent state of emergency was put in place in 2017 after a series of bombings by an ISIS affiliate against churches in Egypt that left a number of people dead. But in reality, Egyptians have been living under a state of emergency for about 50 years really, since 1967.
For the state of emergency imposed by President Sisi, who did it impact primarily?
Well, it probably impacts the majority of people who are in prison for protesting. But it's also been used against, of course, Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters, liberals and people who supported the 2011 revolution, youth activists, journalists, you name it, anyone who's been willing to criticize the government.
So, practically, what does it mean for the thousands of political detainees, that the state of emergency has been lifted?
Well, it's not perfectly clear yet what it will mean for those who are already in jail, right? Because many of the high-profile people, we believe, who've gotten the most attention are still going to be subject to their detention, and so on, and the court system that they have been subject to. It will, hopefully, end the special emergency state security courts that the emergency law allows. And it will, hopefully, if it is to mean anything other than just this declaration, will allow a little bit of greater political space in Egypt, but that's certainly yet to be determined.

 

What do you think the lifting of the state of emergency now signals more generally about the Egyptian government? I mean, is this them rolling out a welcome mat for free expression or simply confidence that they're firmly in control of the country?
Well, they're firmly in control of the country, but I think what it is in response to is increasing criticism and some action by the international community about the human rights record and the abysmal state of political freedom in Egypt. There's been intense criticism of the human rights record. And then, of course, very recently, the Biden administration withheld some $130 million of aid to the government. And the government has been, in response, trying to change its image, trying to kind of produce a makeover and to say that it's more interested in civil society groups, human rights and so on.

 

And, Samer, those critics have been pretty relentless. Earlier this year, five leading human rights organizations in Egypt laid out some basic steps that should be taken to stop the erosion of human rights there. The lifting of the state of emergency — that was the first step. What are the next steps, and do you think the Egyptian government will continue the process?
Sure, they asked for a number of very concrete things, I mean, freeing political prisoners, for example. There are thousands of political prisoners. Stopping the detentions that kind of go on forever, staying all executions, political and criminal cases and so on, all kinds of other things. So, those would really be much more...concrete actions. And therefore, I think, and many others, are a little bit skeptical about what this really means in practice.

 

So, if I'm a protester or a journalist right now in Egypt and I see this policy change, put us in the mind of that person, what am I thinking? Can I go out and kind of express myself freely now?
Not necessarily. I think it's certainly understood as a signal to the international community, more so than a signal to Egyptians. But it also could mean that there is only slightly more room for political maneuver in Egypt. Not a great amount, but a little bit more.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.