Under ‘emergency’ for decades, Egypt’s special powers mirrored in post-9/11 US

By Stephen C. Webster
Friday, January 28, 2011 13:29 EDT
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Indefinite detention. Ubiquitous torture. Secret courts. Special authority for police interventions. The complete absence of privacy, even in one’s own home.

Astute followers of American politics might think those items a dog whistle, evoking the worst civil liberties abuses permitted by the USA PATRIOT Act and other “emergency” provisions passed in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.

They are, in fact, just a few of the powers claimed in an Egyptian “emergency” law passed in 1958, that goes even further than the controversial American security provisions.

The law has been used to keep the country under an officially declared “state of emergency” since the assassination of President Anwar el-Sadat in 1981. Prior to that, it had been invoked frequently since 1967, in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli war.

Egyptians have been campaigning against it ever since.

Criticism of the policies escalated again last May, when their parliament extended the government’s emergency powers for another two years.

Authorities promised to limit the law’s application to terrorists and drug traffickers: a promise which human rights advocates called into doubt.

In an unclassified diplomatic cable from the US embassy in Cairo, released by secrets outlet WikiLeaks on Friday, American officials acknowledged the many abuses the law had brought on, from torture to caps on personal expression, limits on public assembly and the seizure of publications.

The cable explains:

– The Emergency Law creates state security courts, which issue verdicts that cannot be appealed, and can only be modified by the president.

– The Emergency Law allows the president broad powers to “place restrictions” on freedom of assembly. Separately, the penal code criminalizes the assembly of 5 or more people in a gathering that could “threaten public order.”

– Over the past two decades, the vast majority of cases where the government has used the Emergency Law have been to target violent Islamist extremist groups such as the Islamic Group and Al-Jihad, and political activity by the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the GOE has also used the Emergency Law in some recent cases to target bloggers and labor demonstrators.

Provisions of the law were used in recent years to arrest members of the country’s minority party, the Muslim Brotherhood. The government has often scapegoated the group as one of their reasons for needing such laws.

Opposition leader and Nobel winner Mohamed ElBaradei, who was placed under house arrest on Friday, had previously suggested they demonize this group simply to perpetuate their enhanced power over the people.

The country was gripped in a series of growing protests since Jan. 25, with tens of thousands of protesters risking their lives to demand President Mubarak, a key US ally, resign power. He’s held the country’s highest office for over three decades.

Torture and brutality in Egypt’s prisons was long known to American officials, another leaked cable revealed Friday.

During murder investigations, police regularly rounded up 40 to 50 suspects and hung them by their arms until they obtained a confession from someone, according to the cable.

Another leaked cable noted that “credible human rights lawyers believe police brutality continues to be a pervasive, daily occurrence in [Egyptian] detention centers, and that [the State Security Investigative Service] has adapted to increased media and blogger focus on police brutality by hiding the abuse and pressuring victims not to bring cases.”

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party was ostensibly reelected in late 2010 by 83 percent of the popular vote, but many elections observers called the election fraudulent. The Muslim Brotherhood and Wafd, the other opposition party, boycotted the election. Voting in December was hindered by violence in many places around Egypt.

Though Mubarak has been in power over three decades, US Vice President Joe Biden said Thursday that he is not a “dictator” and should not resign, in spite of the popular uprising against his regime.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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