Africa

In Egypt, questions remain over lifting of emergency

Published : October 30, 2021 18:38 IST

Analysts have little hope that human rights activists will enjoy more freedom despite the end of the emergency decree. Photo: Hassan Ammar/dpa/picture alliance

Analysts doubt that the situation in Egypt will change. A tangible signal could be the release of political prisoners.

This week's lifting of the state of emergency status in Egypt was meant to be a message of hope for the 100 million people country. After all, President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi had announced that "Egypt has become, thanks to its great people and its loyal men, an oasis of security and stability in the region."

Back in April 2017, two deadly bombings at Coptic churches had led to the initial three-month state of emergency. According to Article 154 of the Egyptian constitution, this status can be renewed once for three additional months. But el-Sissi had continuously renewed it — until now. An emergency decree grants sweeping powers to security forces, including arbitrary arrests, warrant-free searches in private houses and bans on gatherings. It also curtails constitutional rights such as freedom of speech.

However, the emergency decree has not been the only legal basis for repression in Egypt. Thousands of people, including dissidents, journalists, influencers and human rights activists, were also detained and convicted under a draconian counterterrorism law that is still in place.

"The government can still detain peaceful critics and activists under the abusive 2015 counterterrorism law and designate people as 'terrorists' without due process or trials," Amr Magdi, a researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told DW. According to a report by HRW in March 2021, because of the dire human rights situation in Egypt, there are 60,000 political prisoners — almost half of the country's detainees.

National and international pressure has been growing in the past months. "The amount of criticism that Egypt has been subject to over this, both domestically and internationally, has resulted in the government trying to present an image of taking these concerns seriously," Timothy Kaldas, an expert on the region and policy fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told DW.

In September, the U.S. State Department declared it was withholding $130 million (€111 million) in military aid unless Egypt "meets specific human rights benchmarks." In turn, by lifting the state of emergency this week, el-Sissi managed to not only appease the powerful ally abroad. "A list of seven demands by the Egyptian civil society had centered on this demand as well, and they deserve credit for really forcing this on the agenda of the government," Kaldas told DW. But above all, el-Sissi's underlying message to his people was that the clamp-down on dissidents is paying dividends.

Not a new era

Kaldas strongly doubts that el-Sissi's announcement will mark the beginning of the end of repression in Egypt. "People who have already been convicted will see no relief from this and, undeniably, a large number of the exceptional powers allotted to the security apparatus are baked into other laws," he said. This view is echoed by Berlin-based Hossam Baghat, an Egyptian human rights activist, who is currently on trial in Egypt for a tweet about election fraud.

HRW-researcher Amr Magdi also doesn't see a "real political will to end the nationwide repression." "So far, all actions indicate that lifting emergency is just a public relation stunt, as the grim reality that Egyptians live under nationwide repression has not changed," he told DW. Magdi said he will remain disillusioned unless a real landmark signal takes place, "Nothing will change without freeing the thousands of political detainees and ending the severe restrictions that annihilated the civil and political participation."

For now, that appears unlikely. Less than two weeks ago, several popular human rights lawyers and political activists were referred to Egypt's Supreme State Security Prosecution. According to the online magazine Al-Monitor, among the referred detainees were Yahya Hussein Abdel Hadi, the former spokesman for the liberal Civil Democratic Movement, Mohammed el-Baker, a lawyer and founder and director of the Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, a political activist, and the blogger Mohammad Ibrahim Radwan, popular under the pseudonym "Oxygen."

Kaldas hopes future cases will not be referred to such state security courts. "Moving cases to civilian courts leaves room for abuse as well but it gives a little more opportunity to work through the judiciary and some of the judges have perhaps a bit more integrity to create some breathing room," he said. Moreover, verdicts can be appealed in contrast to verdicts by emergency courts or state security courts.

A ray of hope after all?

As of October 23, el-Sissi said in a televised speech that "2022 is the year of civil society." He further emphasized the importance of civil rights. However, observers believe that this year's release of 31,000 prisoners does not imply a sea change, as it is similar to releases of past years. "To our knowledge, none of them are political prisoners and the release of prisoners on a regular basis is a common thing because of overcrowding," Kaldas told DW, adding: "We're all waiting to see a more substantial number of them released in the coming months. That's the next step that people are hoping for."

However, the latest turn of events is not the release of political prisoners. According to a spokesperson of the Egyptian Ministry of Interior, the next official step is to close 12 public prisons. This accounts for a quarter of the country's prisons. The prisoners will be moved to the new Wadi El Natroon Correctional and Rehabilitation Center, around 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Cairo. That new facility is reported to be built in accordance with international human rights standards.

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