Egypt’s never-ending state of emergency
“When the Egyptian people speak out against poverty and an inert government, human rights abuses follow.” Mustafa Adam-Noble looks at the various ways that suppression in Egypt is growing.
Ever since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, Egypt has been governed under Emergency Law: 27 years worth of “emergencies” constitutionally designated for use only when facing a direct threat, such as a military invasion or a natural disaster. The law, which is supposed to be used in exceptional circumstances, has become the permanent method of governance in Egypt. Interestingly, President Hosni Mubarak has been the country’s ruler for all those 27 years.
Having survived several assassination attempts, it is perhaps no surprise that Mubarak has been reluctant to govern with normal laws. However, hundreds of thousands have been imprisoned during his rule, with 18,000 still held. The regime’s style of law enforcement constitutes jailing large groups of “suspects” in the hope that someone amongst the prisoners will be culpable. Under the rule of Emergency Law, anyone can be arrested without charge or evidence against them.
Alexander Weissink, a Radio Netherlands journalist with a specialty in Egyptian affairs, interviewed Mahmoud Qutri, an ex-Egyptian police colonel and author of books on Egyptian constabulary abuses. Qutri stated: “The police has tried for 27 years to work with a carte blanche. Outside of the state of emergency they would suddenly find themselves obliged to do real investigative work to find evidence, instead of rounding up suspects and use violence to force confessions out of them…That is about the last thing they want.”
A recent survey has found that Egypt’s government workforce of 6 million spends an average of just 27 minutes a day working. In addition to a malign vacuum of legal procedure, the absence of a government work ethic further sidelines the course of justice throughout the country’s population of 75 million.
Since the assassination of Sadat by al-Gama’a al-Islamya (the Islamic Group), the government has locked up 50,000 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood despite the lack of direct links between the Brotherhood and al-Gama’a. The Muslim Brotherhood has a far less violent ideology, and Al-Gama’a was in fact formed after the Brotherhood “renounced violence” in the 1970s. Al-Gama’a was behind the 1997 Luxor attacks in Egypt that killed 62 civilians, most of whom were tourists.
The crackdown on the two Islamic groups by President Mubarak has been brutal and far-reaching. Amid the unjust sweeping arrests, some attacks were probably prevented. However, the lack of accurate, evidence-based police action caused the imprisonment of thousands of people; the majority of whom were innocent and some of whom were tortured.
Human rights organisations continue to condemn the abuse and suppression of the Egyptian people.
During his 2005 electoral campaign, President Mubarak promised to stop the imprisonment of members of the press. In 2007, he jailed eleven journalists for “insulting” him and his party.
Also in 2005, Mubarak vowed to finally end the state of emergency. On 26th May 2008, he issued a verdict extending Emergency Law for yet another 2 years.
During the same elections, police blocked voters from casting their ballots for the Muslim Brotherhood – the only feasible opposition to the current regime. With poignant determination, some voters were forced to enter a polling station through its back window using a ladder, in defiance of police station closures.
Prime minister Ahmed Nazif summarised the superficial self-promotion of debunked government policy, stating: “The storm of terrorism blows strong around us and our enemies lie in wait.” Such poetic rhetoric of fear has become the justification for a farcical legal system and endemic human rights abuses.
Recently, on the 9th of June, eight thousand Egyptians protested against the government’s decision to end flour rations. Eighty-seven have been arrested so far.
Many similar protests occurred in 2007 and 2008, centring around the massive and rapid rise in the cost of living in Egypt (a 50% increase according to the latest count, with inflation at 20%). Further, millions of Egyptian workers do not have job contracts or social insurance; meaning that they have no rights to minimum wage, holidays, or compensation for job injuries.
Forty percent of people live on less than $2 a day and doubling food prices have left almost half of the population undernourished. This is taking place while the Egyptian government receives nearly $2 billion in aid from the US; the highest recipient of its kind after Iraq and Israel. Egypt has also gained another $2 billion this year in revenues from the Suez Canal, one of the world’s busiest trade routes.
When the Egyptian people speak out against poverty and an inert government, human rights abuses follow.
The government has openly declared its intention to suppress free speech when it issued warnings that any other demonstrators will lose their jobs. More gravely, the threat of imprisonment and serious maltreatment is ever-present.
Mubarak and his government are also considering blocking Facebook after 80,000 young Egyptians were mobilised in April 2008, protesting rising food prices. A blogger and activist who helped organise the protest was recently released after being jailed and allegedly tortured.
Even amongst the seriously ill, the brutality of the regime is acutely demonstrated. Sufferers of HIV were arrested and chained to their hospital beds for months before an international outcry in February 2008 pressured the Ministry of Health to have them unchained.
In a display of hypocrisy, a gay man was arrested because of his sexual orientation in May 2001 and was subsequently raped by one of these guards. He was arrested along with 51 others before being set free following pressure from both the US and the EU. Two years later, the courts put the men on trial again and, this time, were able to pass down prison sentences.
The authorities have forcefully used their power over the legal system to fulfil their aims in other instances. According to Radio Netherlands, in February 2007 forty members of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested on suspicion of terrorism. Civil courts repeatedly dismissed their case because of a lack of evidence. Mubarak intervened and transferred them to a military tribunal where they were condemned to serve sentences ranging from two to ten years.
In an interview with the Inter Press Service, Ayman Aqeel, head of the Cairo-based Maat Centre for Constitutional and Legal Rights, said: “Egypt doesn”t need an emergency law or new anti-terror legislation,” he said. “Proposed anti-terrorism laws will only represent another means of restricting our freedoms. Normal laws, and the penalties they carry, should be enough to deal with any crime.”
Mubarak and his government must take a step back and look at the landscape that they both have created in Egyptian society.
Continued violations of basic human rights that attempt to break the spirit of the Egyptian people in order to fulfill a political agenda are shameful crimes.
Much needs to change before Egypt can progress beyond its current flailing state. The government must find a way to use incentives in their bureaucracy to both protect the public and prosecute real perpetrators. This can eventually help develop the country under normal laws and do away with the “state of emergency”.
The suppression of freedom of speech and the systematic abuse of prisoners throws the country into a vicious cycle that diminishes tolerance and progressive attitudes.
With economic realities worsening and the ability to survive becoming more difficult, Egyptians will continue to protest and it will become harder and harder for Mubarak to silence the masses.
Mustafa Adam-Noble is a political commentator.