Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has extended the state of emergency for three months “due to the dangerous security and health conditions” in the country, according to what was published in the official newspaper Monday night.
According to Sisi’s decision to declare a state of emergency throughout the country for a period of three months, starting at one o’clock on the morning of Tuesday, corresponding to 28 April 2020, “The armed forces and the police force shall take the necessary measures to confront the dangers and financing of terrorism, maintain security in all parts of the country, protect public and private property, and save the lives of citizens,” the decision’s text read.
“Anyone who violates the orders issued will be punished with imprisonment,” it added.
The state of emergency throughout Egypt has been declared in the wake of two attacks on April 9, 2017, targeting two Coptic churches in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria, and resulted in the death of 45 people.
This time, the extension of the emergency coincides with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the world, where its death exceeded 200 thousand globally.
Emergency laws amended to give head of state vast powers
The state of emergency gives police broad powers of arrest and detention and curtails constitutional rights such as freedom of speech and assembly.
Last week, state media reported that parliament had approved amendments to the emergency law expanding the president’s powers to curb the virus’ spread.
The amendments grant the president rights to close schools, suspend public sector work, restrict gatherings, quarantine inbound travelers and order private medical facilities to assist with general healthcare.
Tuesday’s renewal, which is the twelfth renewal in a row, also directed the armed forces and police to “take the required measures to face terrorism and its funding”.
Egypt has been facing a jihadist insurgency, which surged after the 2013 ouster of late president Mohamed Morsi by then-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The attacks have been largely concentrated in the northern Sinai Peninsula, which has been under a state of emergency since October 2014.
According to the Egyptian Ministry of Health, there are more than 4,500 people infected with the virus in the country, more than 300 died and nearly 1,200 have recovered.
What is the emergency law?
Lifting the state of emergency, initially imposed following late President Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981 and lasted for three decades under his successor Hosni Mubarak, has been one of the key demands of the January 2011 popular uprising.
In June 2012, Egypt’s state of emergency came to an end.
However, in January 2013, emergency law was reintroduced by the democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi for 30 days only, to curb renewed unrest.
In August of the same year, and following a military coup led by then defense minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi against the elected President Mohamed Morsi Morsi, Egypt’s military-backed government then declared a one-month state of emergency following the violent dispersal of Morsi supporters in what came to be known as Rabaa al-Adawiya massacre in which hundreds of civilians were killed at hands of police and security forces.
Article 154 of the Egyptian Constitution states that the president must consult the Cabinet before issuing an official declaration, after which the decision must be submitted to Parliament. A parliamentary majority must approve the declaration within seven days of its issuance for the three-month state of emergency to go into effect.
Once this period elapses, it can only be extended for an additional three months by a two-thirds majority vote.
If Parliament is not in session, the matter is taken to the Cabinet for approval, to be presented to the House of Representatives in its first session.
Despite this limitation, the emergency law still grants the president exceptional powers.
The emergency law grants the president, and those acting on his behalf, the power to refer civilians to State Security Emergency Courts for the duration of the three-month period. There is no appeal process for State Security Emergency Court verdicts.
It also extends powers of the president to monitoring and intercepting all forms of communication and correspondence, imposing censorship prior to publication and confiscating extant publications, impose a curfew for or order the closure of commercial establishments, sequestration of private properties, as well as designating areas for evacuation.
Article 4 of the emergency law grants the Armed Forces the authority to address any violations of these powers.
The emergency measures allow security forces to detain people for any period of time, for virtually any reason. They also grant broad powers to restrict public gatherings and media freedom.
But Egypt’s human rights situation has already been the worst in decades.
Since Sisi took power in 2013, human rights conditions in the country continued to deteriorate.
Human rights organizations found that around 60,000 were imprisoned between 2013 and 2017 only. To accommodate them, the Egyptian authorities decided to build 10 additional prisons. The facilities that already house these prisoners are extremely overcrowded, according to Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights.
A Human Rights Watch report on Cairo’s Scorpion Prison found that the inmates were mostly political prisoners. The prisoners “suffered abuses at the hands of Interior Ministry officers, including beatings, force feedings, deprivation of contact with relatives and lawyers, and interference in medical care”.
There were 326 cases of extrajudicial killings in 2015, a number which rose to 754 cases in the first half of 2016 alone, according to Al Nadeem Center, a local human rights group.
In August 2016, the Egyptian Coordination of Rights and Freedoms released a report on prison conditions in Egypt under Sisi, documenting 1,344 incidents of torture – including direct torture and intentional medical neglect – in detention facilities and prisons between 2015 and 2016.
There are also reports of forced disappearances. Amnesty International recorded three to four disappearances a day between 2015 and 2016. Amnesty states that the number could be much higher since a lot of families fear the repercussions from reporting a disappearance case.
Furthermore, Sisi issued a decree in 2014 that allowed the military wider jurisdiction, where civilians were prosecuted by the military courts. These trials contained almost no evidence and were based on investigations led by National Security officers. Human Rights Watch said that this “formed the basis of 7,400 or more military trials of civilians” since Sisi issued the decree.
A few years into Egypt’s new authoritarianism, citizens have been herded away from the public space that has been shrinking thanks to government’s crackdown on independent civil society organisations and opposition political parties.
In 2016, a new law signed by Sisi ordered the creation of a Supreme Council for the Administration of the Media, a body that can revoke licences to foreign media and fine or suspend publications and broadcasters.
Among many other infamous laws, the anti-protest law passed in 2013 remains in place. It effectively banned anti-government protests, but the Supreme Constitutional Court is legally challenging it.