A Quick Look at Egypt’s New State of Emergency Measures

By Jenna Amlani

In the wake of the April 9 Palm Sunday bombings in Tanta and Alexandria, the Egyptian government responded with a number of legal measures aimed at strengthening the country’s ability to fight terrorism.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared a three-month nationwide state of emergency, which was unanimously approved by Parliament two days later. This is the first time a nationwide state of emergency has been imposed since Egypt adopted a new constitution in 2014. After a state of emergency has been in effect for three months, it can only be extended by two-thirds parliamentary approval.

The House of Representatives later voted in favor of an amendment to the emergency law that, according to the Head of Parliament’s Defense and National Security Committee Kamal Amer, “allows state authorities to detain anyone suspected of terrorist activity for seven days after getting the prosecution’s approval” and “authorizes Emergency High State Security courts to order the detention of highly dangerous elements for one month in jail, which is subject to renewal.”

Mada Masr explained that the amendment is similar to a provision in the 1958 Emergency Law which was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court in 2013 because it violates due process rights. Though the amendment would allow public prosecutors to intervene in cases of temporary detention, “it still fails to enshrine the right of a detainee to appear before a prosecutor or judge to challenge the legality of detention,” according to Mada Masr.

One of the most significant provisions of the emergency law is that it grants state officials the authority to monitor and intercept all forms of communication, including social media. According to Speaker of Parliament Ali Abdel Aal, social media sites including Facebook and Youtube will be monitored [Ar] under the terms of the state of emergency because they are websites that can work “against the interest of the country.” He told Ahram Online that he is aware that terrorist organizations use social media to plan future attacks.

Declaring a state of emergency gives authorities a number of additional powers, including the ability to:

  • Refer civilians to State Security Emergency Courts, where they are unable to appeal verdicts. The president will retain the authority to amend, annul, suspend, or order a retrial in any emergency court case.
  • Search homes without warrants
  • Further restrict freedom of movement and assembly
  • Censor and confiscate publications
  • Shut down commercial establishments
  • Sequester private property
  • Designate certain areas for evacuation

The Supreme Council to Combat Terrorism and Extremism

Additionally, President al-Sisi formed the Supreme Council to Combat Terrorism and Extremism on April 11. In a statement [Ar], presidential spokesman Alaa Youssef reported that the council is tasked with “[formulating] a comprehensive national strategy to confront terrorism and extremism in all aspects and [issuing] the necessary decisions and measures to implement them.” This will include combating extremist ideology by “[rectifying] misconceptions exploited by terrorist organisations to attract new recruits.” According to Enterprise, the Council will also “[have] the authority to issue binding decisions on specific measures in connection with the state’s counterterrorism efforts.” The spokesman claimed that the Council will be part of a new framework to increase coordination among state agencies in order to effectively establish security and stability.

Enacting the Media Law

The same day, President al-Sisi issued a decree forming three new media regulatory bodies, enacting the Media Act approved by parliament in December 2016. The most significant of these bodies is the Supreme Media Council, which has the authority to ban foreign news and news deemed “inflammatory” for national security purposes. The Council will, according to Enterprise, “effectively govern all media activity in Egypt, whether online or print, public or private.” Former Press Syndicate Chairman Makram Mohamed Ahmed will head the Council. The two other bodies formed include the National Press Authority, which will manage all state-owned print outlets, and the National Media Authority to manage state-owned broadcast media in place of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union.

Following the formation of these new bodies, the Interior Ministry issued a statement [Ar] warning news outlets that it may begin cracking down on publications that spread false news. The statement explicitly singles out Al-Wafd, Al-Masreyoun, Al-Bawaba, and Al-Masry Al-Youm for allegedly publishing false reports last year. The Ministry called for news outlets to be responsible and check the accuracy of their stories before publishing them.

The impact was felt immediately. On April 10 and 11, authorities prevented the print edition of the privately-owned newspaper Al-Bawaba from being printed following the newspaper’s blaming of the church bombings on a “security lapse,” singling out Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar. In an official statement, Al-Bawaba “[condemned] this blatant attack on the freedom of opinion and expression, which is guaranteed by the Constitution and the law.”

Amending the Code of Criminal Procedure

On April 10, Parliament voted [Ar] to preliminarily approve the Bill to Amend the Code of Criminal Procedure. The bill includes amendments [Ar] to four laws: the law of criminal procedures; law No. 57 of 1959 related to appealing cases before the Court of Cassation; law No. 8 of 2015 regarding the organization of terrorist lists; and the anti-terrorism law No. 94 of 2015. Bill sponsor MP Salah Hasballah, a member of the majority pro-Sisi Egypt Support Coalition, told Al-Monitor that “the legal amendment bill aims at expediting prosecution procedures, especially in terrorism cases.” The changes would also allow Egypt’s public prosecutor “to examine the calls for adding certain groups to the terrorist lists, after the submission of evidentiary documents.”

Law to Protect Public Facilities

Parliament’s Egypt Support Coalition, led by Hasballah, is also working on legislation to protect public facilities and places of worship. The bill calls [Ar] for the installation of surveillance cameras near public, commercial, and administrative buildings and places of worship and sanctions on those who refuse.

As Human Rights Watch points out, “in practice, Egyptian authorities have exercised de facto emergency powers since the military removed President [Mohamed Morsi]. The government has effectively banned opposition protests, and police and Interior Ministry National Security officers have arbitrarily arrested thousands of suspects, used torture routinely to elicit confessions, and forcibly disappeared hundreds for months at a time.” The extent to which these additional measures will further impact civil society, human rights, and democracy in Egypt remains to be seen.