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Ending the state of emergency was initially hailed as a step in the right direction, but it might not actually change much, especially after the passage of legal amendments that may seemingly take its place.
A state of emergency gives executive authorities unfettered powers to arrest any suspects and put them under surveillance, impose different forms of censorship on mass media, among other measures.
It is meant to be invoked during exceptional circumstances, yet it was activated throughout late President Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade autocratic rule, which came to end following public uprising in February 2011 – part of the so-called Arab Spring.
In 2014, under incumbent President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the state of emergency was put back in place in the restive North Sinai, near the borders with Israel, amid recurrent militant attacks. It then became nationwide in 2017 on the back of deadly bombings of churches in the northern Egyptian city of Tanta.
“Egypt, because of its great people and loyal men, has become an oasis of security and stability in the region,” Sisi said in a statement on 25 October, announcing the end of the state of emergency, which had been routinely extended every three months.
Critics would argue that such stability is established at the expense of civil freedoms and unjust prosecution of leading opposition figures. Yet, some human rights advocates still found the move commendable.
“#Egypt to lift [the] state of emergency imposed nationwide since 2017. Means emergency state security courts cease to exist, except for many high profile cases already referred like Patrick Zaki, Mohamed Al Baqer, Alaa Abdelfattah, Ezzat Ghoneim and others. Still good news,” renowned Egyptian human rights activist and journalist Hossam Bahgat said on Twitter on the day of the announcement.
Human Rights Watch, which is highly critical of the Egyptian regime over human rights violations and lack of freedoms, says lifting the state of emergency is a “start” to reverse autocratic practices, but remains “insufficient” on its own.
Controversial legal amendments
The praise for ending the state of emergency was still resounding until this week, when Egypt’s House of Representatives voted for a bundle of legal amendments that many believe will replace the state of emergency prerogatives.
The developments of the past week have shown the government’s approach of taking one step forward and two steps back when it comes to democratic progress.
On Sunday 31 October, the House passed amendments to the national terrorism law – which saw numerous individuals convicted and imprisoned over the past years – that give the president the right to take necessary measures to maintain security and order, such as imposing curfews.
The amendments also give the army and police the responsibility of protecting and controlling vital infrastructure facilities, such as gas pipelines, oil fields, power stations and the railways. Civilians accused of trespassing on or damaging such facilities risk facing military trials.
Only a handful of lawmakers voiced objections to the amendments, including MP Samira el-Gazar, who noted during a session that “referring [citizens] to military court is unconstitutional”.
‘One step forward, two steps back’
Allison L McManus, research director at the Washington DC-based Freedom Initiative, which defines itself as a non-partisan human rights organisation that advocates for the freedom of prisoners wrongfully detained across the MENA region, brands the recent developments in Egypt as “anti-democratic”.
“The developments of the past week have shown the government’s approach of taking one step forward and two steps back when it comes to democratic progress,” she tells The Africa Report.
“Allowing the state of emergency to expire was a key demand among human rights organisations and activists, as the measures were only ever intended to be in place very temporarily and in the most extreme circumstances.
Another legal amendment approved on Monday 1 November criminalises research on the army and its current and former members without prior governmental approval.
“However, the current regime utilised the state of emergency as a way to consolidate power and strip the populations of [their] rights. Along these lines, the new legislation proposed is particularly anti-democratic, granting the president similar powers to that of the emergency law, albeit with no time limit.
“Any government should have the ability to address security threats that endanger public safety, but there are clear guidelines for addressing security threats without eroding rights or democratic norms, and the Egyptian regime has chosen to ignore these in favour of laws with the sole purpose of consolidating power in the hands of the ruler, rather than the people.”
Another legal amendment approved on Monday 1 November criminalises research on the army and its current and former members without prior governmental approval. Those found guilty would face a fine of up to LE50,000 (approx. $3,200).
This week’s legal amendments are yet to come into effect pending the ratification of Sisi.
Years of turmoil
Sisi is a former army general who came to power in 2014 after securing a landslide victory in a presidential election that took place during a time of political polarisation.
A military coup against the late President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, one year after he was sworn in, set up the election that was won by Sisi, who for the most part was domestically hailed as a hero for ousting the Islamist ruler.
The rise of Sisi and the fall of Morsi marked the beginning of another political upheaval in the North African country, while it was still witnessing the aftermath of the 2011 uprising that toppled the longstanding Mubarak.
The years that followed the ousting of Morsi, who hailed from the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that was later outlawed in Egypt and other countries, was mostly characterised by violence across the country, especially in North Sinai.
While Islamist militants targeted security personnel from the police and army – as both institutions evidently supported massive nationwide protests against Morsi in 2013, and paved the way for his ouster – other sectarian attacks were aimed at the Coptic population, a Christian minority in the predominantly-Muslim nation.
A systematic crackdown on Islamists for the past eight years, with flocks of them imprisoned or even executed for a myriad of charges, eventually put an end to the chaos and kept terrorism at bay.
Yet the current regime has often been accused of human rights abuses and undemocratic practices, which of late have been under scrutiny from the United States and Europe. This, some observers believe, was the impetus for lifting the state of emergency.
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