Is lifting Egypt's state of emergency just a 'cosmetic' change?

In-depth Marwa
6 min read
08 November, 2021

Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi recently ended an almost three-decade-long state of emergency that had been restricting civil rights in the country.

Observers say, however, that the move is largely ‘cosmetic’, aimed at projecting an improved image to the international community about civil rights in a country where they are routinely violated.

As Sisi announced that he was ending the extension of the emergency state in a statement posted on his social media accounts on 25 October, he described Egypt as “an oasis of security and stability in the region".

Nevertheless, analysts and human rights advocates remain sceptical about Sisi’s initiative at a time where dictatorship and autocracy prevail in the country.

“In my opinion, ending the emergency state came to cover up the actual conditions of human rights and to complement a false image of a supposedly improved situation and the superficial steps carried out in this regard, including the recent human rights strategy announced by Sisi [earlier last month],” argued veteran rights lawyer Gamal Eid.

"Analysts and human rights advocates remain sceptical about Sisi's initiative at a time where dictatorship and autocracy prevail in the country"

“It is a cosmetic step for local media outlets, loyal to the regime, to feed on and promote,” Eid, also the head of Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, told The New Arab, adding that he expects similar measures to be taken in the near future to “disillusion the public”.

The Egyptian regime has long been at loggerheads with the US, as well as the international community at large, about the human rights situation in the country.

Ever since Sisi overthrew the first democratically-elected president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 through a military coup, he has frequently been accused by local and international rights groups of overseeing the worst crackdown on critics in decades.

About 60,000 regime opponents are believed to be behind bars, some left to die slowly of medical negligence, while dozens of others were already executed.

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In September this year, a US state department spokesman declared that the United States would withhold $130 million worth of military aid to Egypt until Cairo took serious human rights actions. 

Several months earlier, in March, 31 United Nations member states, including the US, had condemned in a joint statement Egypt’s human rights record, expressing “deep concerns” over the widespread abuses committed with impunity by the Egyptian authorities.

As usual, the signatories’ accusations were met by the Egyptian foreign ministry's denial and disapproval.

A mix-up

The state of emergency and the emergency law, first passed in 1958, have often been confused with each other by both Egyptians and the media alike.

“The fact that Sisi ended the extension of the state of emergency does not mean he called off the emergency law,” high-profile lawyer Negad El-Borai told The New Arab.

“The declaration of the state of emergency activates the emergency law. While the state of emergency is part of the legislation, the rest of the law remains in place, though,” he added.

Palestinians wave Egyptian flags while sitting in a vehicle parked beneath a giant billboard depicting Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. [Getty]
Sisi has overseen the worst crackdown on human rights in Egypt's modern history. [Getty]

“The state of emergency can be declared by the president after the approval of the parliament during extraordinary circumstances facing the country such as epidemics, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks, which is the case with many other countries around the world,” Borai explained.

The emergency law had been amended in 2020 among other measures to combat the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Before the January 25 Revolution in 2011, the state of emergency had been enforced since Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. After the assassination of president Anwar Sadat by Islamists in 1981, it had been renewed by his successor, late president Hosni Mubarak, and remained in place ever since.

The last decree issued by Mubarak to reinstate the state of emergency was in 2010. It was deactivated by the military junta that ruled the country briefly after the January 25 revolution broke out in 2011, ousting Mubarak.

"It is a cosmetic step for local media outlets, loyal to the regime, to feed on and promote"

For the 13 months following the revolution, from June 2012 - August 2013, Egypt lived free of a state of emergency.

Egyptians thought or, maybe hoped, at that time that Egypt would never live under a state of emergency again.

Later on, the state of emergency was enforced on separate occasions until April 2017, when it was put into force by Sisi in response to deadly terrorist attacks on Coptic Christian churches that left at least 40 Copts dead and renewed every three months until it was lifted in October. 

Now what?

The looming question now is whether any civil rights will actually be restored following the end of the state of emergency.

One seemingly positive factor about lifting the state of emergency is that citizens will no longer stand trial before state security emergency courts, whose verdicts cannot be appealed as per article number 19 of the emergency law.

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However, defendants who were already on trial before the emergency state had been lifted, including several prominent activists such as Alaa Abdel-Fattah, will still be tried before the state emergency court and have no chance of appeal.

Prominent political sociologist Dr Said Sadek is not optimistic.

“The decision needs to be tested, as other [repressive laws] remain active. On the other hand, the excessive use of police power and their practices throughout the time the state of emergency was applied require adjustment,” Sadek told The New Arab.

The state of emergency had granted sweeping powers to the security authorities without much judicial oversight, including communications monitoring, control over press freedom, arbitrary arrests, the search of individuals and their homes without a warrant, and the restriction of freedom of people to gather.

"About 60,000 regime opponents are believed to be behind bars, some left to die slowly of medical negligence"

“The police need training on the new situation as to how to deal with citizens in the absence of an emergency state,” Sadek explained.

Renowned political analyst Hassan Nafaa believes the state of emergency is only the tip of the iceberg.

“If the notorious, unconstitutional laws passed in the presence of the state of emergency are not amended, ending the emergency state will have no positive impact on the life of Egyptians or the current political environment,” tweeted Nafaa, also a professor of political science at Cairo University.

In recent years, Egypt has passed two repressive laws that restrict the freedoms of individuals: the anti-terrorism law in 2015, amended in the coming years, and the anti-protest law two years earlier.

The anti-protest law practically ended Egyptian activism on the ground and any attempts at new revolutions and mass mobilisation in the country.  

Thaer Mansour is a journalist based in Cairo, reporting for The New Arab on politics, culture and social affairs from the Egyptian capital