Sherif Mohy Eldeen
On April 9, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi signed a decree imposing a three-month state of emergency for the entire country. This move came the same day bombings at the St. George’s Church in Tanta and the St. Mark’s Church in Alexandria claimed around 45 lives and injured 125 others. Egypt has returned once again to the state of emergency that had been in place for decades before the January 2011 revolution. However, the emergency has shown dubious benefit in fighting the all-too-real threat of terrorism and militant violence.
Egypt has been under a state of emergency for a total of 53 years between 1956 and 2017. Periods without a state of emergency were the exception to the rule, lasting only three years under Gamal Abdel-Nasser and 18 months under Anwar Sadat. It was not until after the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces lifted it in 2012 that Egypt went for the better part of five years (barring a few months in 2013) without a national state of emergency – the longest period in its history.
During these decades, Egypt witnessed tension and unrest, as well as terrorist attacks (such as the bombings in Taba and Nuweiba in 2004) and assassinations (such as the assassination of Sadat in October 1981). In response, the government would make two contradictory statements after each attack. The first highlighted that such incidents were commonplace, aiming to dodge a serious investigation into the security services’ shortcomings. The second painted the attack as unusual in a country known for its stability and security, in order to persuade Egyptians that fighting militants required a continued or renewed state of emergency.
Throughout these decades, the semipermanent state of emergency failed to prevent more attacks, because it did not address the glaring security shortcomings evident from eyewitness accounts after the incidents. For instance, witnesses of April’s Tanta church bombing reported that the metal detector at the entrance was not functioning.
The ineffectiveness of the state of emergency is exemplified by the undeniable deterioration of affairs in North Sinai despite a local state of emergency and curfew that have already been in place in the governorate since 2014. According to reports by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, North Sinai had 261 terrorist attacks in 2013, which increased after the local state of emergency was imposed to 681 attacks in 2016. The attacks expanded southward in 2016, reaching South Sinai. Wilayat Sinai, a Daesh (ISIS) affiliate, claimed responsibility for an attack on a checkpoint near the historical St. Catherine’s monastery on April 18 – less than 10 days after the emergency law was adopted nationwide. As the attacks increase, it is not clear how the state of emergency would tackle the underlying problems it was adopted to address, yet it provides further justification for grave repression and abuse.
The state of emergency has been used to consolidate the authoritarian regime and further repress opposition voices more than it has actually tackled militant violence and terrorism. Egypt has now gone far beyond the scope of repression at any point in its history of implementing the state of emergency. Even before the new law was adopted, the regime consistently tried to maximize the use of other extraordinary measures since coming to power on July 3, 2013. For example, an executive order (Decree 136 of 2014) passed before Parliament was elected allowed army troops to stand side-by-side with the police to guard public buildings around the country. The same order has also allowed thousands of civilians to be tried before military tribunals, contrary to international law. Those civilians were dealt harsh sentences, from lengthy prison terms to the death penalty.
In its final years, the Hosni Mubarak regime had justified extending the state of emergency by claiming it was needed to fill in for anti-terrorism legislation – though the legislative committee drafting it never sent it to Parliament for approval. Once in power, the Sisi regime did pass an anti-terrorism law after the assassination of prosecutor Hisham Barakat in 2015. The current law is controversial, and according to several independent Egyptian human rights NGOs is much worse than the draft versions presented previously because it “consolidates an undeclared state of emergency.” The law gave the president broad authority to maintain the country’s security without stating in detail which situations would merit such a response.
Both before and after the anti-terrorism law was issued, Egypt has seen systematic human rights violations, including forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings by law enforcement agencies. Even with such a draconian anti-terrorism law, Sisi still reinstated the state of emergency, which will only worsen these abuses and further legitimize the persistent crushing of opposition and stifling of public dissent. An increase in the pace of abuses will only heighten fears and outrage over the new state of emergency and make fighting terrorism more difficult.
For much of the Egyptian public, the practice of the state of emergency, complete with curtailment of rights and freedoms, has become the norm – whether the law itself is imposed or lifted. The overwhelming fear of extrajudicial arrest or assault, combined with the systematic labeling of any civil activism or expression of dissent as support for terrorism or the Muslim Brotherhood – accusations with grave repercussions for any individual or group – has created a uniquely Egyptian twist on McCarthyism. Voicing any opinion critical of the state of emergency is a risky move, even among regime supporters quietly pushing for piecemeal reforms. For example, after a front-page editorial in Al-Bawaba called for Interior Minister Magdy Abdel-Ghaffar to resign over the botched security during the two church bombings, the paper was banned from publishing for two days, even though the paper’s owner, Abdel-Rahim Ali, is a vocal pro-Sisi MP.
The normalized state of emergency is clearly a continuation of an old security mentality based on arbitrary detentions and collective punishment. This may catch some terrorists in the dragnet, but at the cost of thousands of innocent people being arrested or detained. Even as grave doubts exist about its effectiveness in the fight against militant violence and terrorism, the path followed since 2013 is being consolidated. It is a harsher authoritarianism than anything Egypt has ever seen, and one in which past and future transgressions by the security forces are justified before they are even reported.
Sherif Mohy Eldeen is a researcher on counterterrorism and human rights at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Follow him on Twitter @Shereqoo. This commentary, translated from Arabic, first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 10, 2017, on page 7.