Egypt's never-ending state of emergency

CAIRO, Egypt — For a country that's been in a state of emergency for the past 29 years, what's a couple more?

That's the stance taken by the country’s ruling party this week, when it extended Egypt’s controversial emergency law until 2012. The law grants the authorities power to suspend basic rights, ban demonstrations and detain individuals indefinitely without charge based on national security concerns.

Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif stressed during a speech to parliament that the government was committed to using the powers granted by the emergency law only “to confront the threats of terrorism and narcotics, and only to the extent necessary to confront these dangers.”

However, human rights activists have been highly vocal in criticizing the Egyptian regime for using the law as a tool for oppression of political opponents. Human rights groups are not convinced the government will start holding to its proposed conditions for enforcement.

President Hosni Mubarak, who recently celebrated his 82 birthday amid speculation about his health and any clear succession plan, vowed in 2005 — during the height of United States’ efforts to promote democracy in the Arab world — to replace Egypt’s emergency law with new counterterrorism legislation.

“President Mubarak has again breached his promise of five years ago to end emergency rule,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The cosmetic changes announced this week don’t change the fact that the state of emergency perpetuates official lawlessness and contempt for basic civil and political rights.”

Egypt isn’t the only country in the Middle East with long-drawn-out official emergency status. Syria has been in a state of emergency since 1963, and Algeria since 1992. Egypt’s current emergency law was enacted immediately following the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981, and according to Nazif, “the rationale for its declaration [has] persisted.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Egypt’s decision to prolong the emergency law, “regrettable,” but did not step too hard on the toes of America’s second largest recipient of aid money.

“The United States understands the challenges that terrorism poses to free societies and we believe that effective counterterrorism measures can be based on legal principles that protect the rights of all citizens,” she said in a State Department statement.

The Egyptian government was keen to play off the comparison to the United States’ counterterrorism initiatives.

It likened its decision to uphold the state of emergency to President Barak Obama’s failed promise to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility by the January 2010 deadline.

“Though President Obama signed an executive order to close the facility by the end of 2009, the administration has been unable to do so due to the complexity of the two challenges faced by the administration regarding this matter,” Nazif said to parliament.

Political analysts, however, think it’s no surprise that the government should not want to loosen up now: National elections are looming in the near future and rumors continue to circulate questioning the health of Mubarak after he underwent gallbladder surgery in Germany in March.

Opposition to the Mubarak regime received a new boost last December, after Mohamed Elbaradei — the former head of the  U.N. nuclear watchdog and a Noble Prize recipient — announced he might run in Egypt’s 2011 presidential election against the ruling party.

“I believe that [the emergency law extension] has a link with the coming parliamentary elections this year and the presidential election in 2011. I think this is very critical phase for the regime,” said Hala Mustafa, editor of the political journal Democracy, who also cited a growing protest movement and Islamic opposition within the country.

Protesters from the political spectrum joined together to demonstrate outside parliament on Tuesday — one of  number of recent protests, and unusual in the country — after it was announced that the emergency law would be renewed. The group of about 100 surrounded on all sides by riot police held signs with a picture of a skeleton labeled “the Egyptian people” sitting at the bottom of a noose labeled “the emergency.”

“They try to make the Egyptian people scared through the state of emergency,” said Sayed Gouda, 55, who used to belong to the liberal-leaning Al-Ghad political party. “I have children, boys and girls. I want my children to live in a free country in the future.”