The ending of Egypt's nearly four-year state of emergency last week seemed like a promising sign for building trust in civil society. But President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi is now trying to make permanent a more recent and temporary national security law that would give the military powers normally used during a state of emergency. And it would allow for new legislative proposals to further build upon that.
Related: Egypt ends its state of emergency amid intense criticism of its human rights record
The amendments to the national terrorism law, which were approved by the House of Representatives on Sunday, would give the president the authority to take “measures necessary to preserve security and public order,” including the ability to impose curfews.
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Mai El-Sadany, the legal director at the Tahrir Institute of Middle East Policy in Washington, has been following this development, and discussed what it entails with The World's host Marco Werman.
Marco Werman: Mai, where did this temporary national security law come from originally?
Mai El-Sadany: So, we've had this law since 2014, and it was in place for a two-year period. And what it did is that it placed public and vital facilities and infrastructure under the oversight of the police and military, which in turn meant that any attacks, violations committed toward or around these facilities could actually be prosecuted by military courts. And so, that meant that a number of civilians were, in fact, referred to military trials. Human Rights Watch recorded nearly 7,400 civilians tried by the military in the first, about, year and a half after the law's passing. This law was then extended for a five-year period. And what happened this week, is that the time limit has been removed, so this law is now here to stay.
So, just briefly, what do the other draft amendments do that Egypt's parliament is considering?
There is one that governs the disclosure of state defense secrets. But what's new is that it would punish publishing information through statistics, studies or data related to the armed forces, so related to the military, without written consent from the defense ministry. So, the fact that we're criminalizing the work that investigative journalists might do is really, really alarming. In addition to that, there have also been new amendments that are being considered to the terrorism law. But now you're seeing an increased fine for anyone who publishes or records proceedings that are happening before a terrorism court. You're seeing increased violations for anyone who violates a curfew that might be in place. So really, this package of amendments when you step back, these three laws, if you will, are kind of a microcosm and they show us how Egypt is legislating using national security, and they're instrumentalizing counterterrorism.
What does all this mean for human rights activists or anyone in Egypt who wants to express themselves or their opinions freely?
It's really, these laws and others like them, they create a chilling effect, if you will. And they make it near impossible for journalists, for human rights defenders, for lawyers to carry out their constitutionally protected activities, to protect others, to report freely. We're seeing a closure of, not just civic space, but a closure of the information space controlled by the regime to kind of make sure that nothing is said outside of the accepted state narrative. And unfortunately, the steps it's taking is sending us in the wrong direction.
Were you skeptical last week when it was announced that the state of emergency was going to be lifted?
I'll say this: As someone who supports Egyptian civil society, I was extremely happy to see the state of emergency being lifted. But at the same time, I was very well aware, unfortunately, that emergency trials would continue, that there are other laws on the books that continue this parallel system of emergency. Unfortunately, the steps taken in the weeks since really undo any of the goodwill that could have been garnered by declaring an end to the state of emergency.
So, is the overall direction in Egypt any better today, in your opinion?
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.