Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi made a rare show of magnanimity. “I am pleased to share this moment with you, one which we have made great efforts to attain, through struggle and hard work. Egypt has become an oasis of security and stability in the region,” Sissi wrote in a Facebook post on October 25. “Hence it was decided, for the first time in years, to cancel the extension of the state of emergency in all areas of the country.”
Egypt has been subject to a state of emergency for over 40 years now, a situation that gives the regime broad authority to suppress human rights, conduct mass arrests and hold detainees without trial, try civilians in military courts, suppress demonstrations and shut down institutions.
With the repeal of the state of emergency, Egypt is supposedly poised to return to a state of normalcy, one in which the courts, civil rights and freedom of expression will be subject solely to the law and the constitution, with the various arms of the regime having no authority to deviate from them. On the face of it, the president’s declaration heralds a new era and implements his declaration from this past August, when he announced a reform of the human rights predicament in Egypt.
One week prior to the cancellation of the state of emergency, Egyptian citizens were introduced to the new prison complex built in Wadi al-Natroun, the largest prison in the country, where, according to government sources, the dignity and quality of life of the prisoners will be taken into account. The complex would also include leisure and sports facilities, and, of course, television.
All of this goodness is attributed in Egypt to international pressure in general, and to pressure by the United States in particular, to improve human rights there, as well as to the freezing of $130 million dollars in US foreign aid. For a moment, it seems as if someone out there is listening and responding to the outcries against repression voiced in Egypt, and even more importantly, it seems as if the president was ready to listen and respond.
But only for a moment. For although the state of emergency has been repealed in a declarative sense, that is not the case for the draconian authorities of the regime. Most of the bans and restrictions are concealed within an infinite number of laws, murky clauses of the constitution, and the special status enjoyed by the armed forces. For instance, according to the law it is possible to prosecute in a military court citizens who have damaged facilities connected to state security. These include army bases and police stations, but the list extends to banks, gas stations, hospitals and essentially any public site or facility owned by the government.
The laws that restrict activity by human rights organizations were legislated outside the framework of the state of emergency, and these laws will continue to serve the regime now. Each and every NGO and public association will still be compelled to seek permission to operate from the General Intelligence Directorate, the Interior Ministry and various other bureaucratic way stations, all of which will embitter the lives of the NGOs before they are permitted to operate.
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The formal censorship apparatus is supposed to be canceled along with cancellation of the state of emergency, but the self-censorship imposed by the government without warrants or laws will continue to exist. Its rules are much more strict than those of the official censorship. The institution of self-censorship has no limitations, does not delineate any restrictions on its powers, and relies on the whims of government ministers and high-ranking officials. The punishment meted out for violations of the code are not written into any law. Editors, journalists and owners of media outlets know very well what to expect if they do not adhere to a request that might be received in the course of a” friendly” phone conversation.
Construction of the new, sophisticated prison (the cost of which is not known publicly) reminded journalist Atallah Salim of a folktale by the late Lebanese writer Salam al-Rassi. There was a dangerous intersection in a certain city that was to blame for numerous traffic accidents. The outcry of the residents came to the attention of the authorities. First one committee was formed, then another committee, then one day a truck arrived at the site and construction materials were unloaded, and a delegation of dignitaries announced the construction of a new hospital for all those injured in the accidents at the intersection.
The situation did not change. New complaints spawned additional committees, and it was decided to build alongside the intersection a garage for repairing the cars damaged in accidents. Then a village entrepreneur decided to open at the intersection a snack bar as a service to the waiting drivers, and this led to the opening of more shops. Arguments and debates over control of the intersection ensued, until the police were compelled to open a station there to protect this “National Asset.”
The moral of the story is obvious. “Instead of changing the laws and a government policy that causes people to be criminals, it opens a new and modern prison,” was the reaction of Atallah Salim on the website Deraj. Perhaps on this occasion, the government will agree to release data on the number of political prisoners now being held. According to human rights organizations, that number exceeds 60,000.
But there is no room for pessimism. Sissi will have many more opportunities to improve the human rights situation and expand freedom of expression. At present, the parliament is debating new amendments to the constitution, which will include repeal of the term limit on the president. The last time the constitution was amended, it extended his tenure until 2022, and approved his right to run for a third term of eight years, until 2030, when Sissi will celebrate his 75th birthday and 17 years as president. And that is still far from the 30 years that Hosni Mubarak held office.
In coming years, we will see a repeat performance of the ritual in which pressure is applied to regulate human rights in Egypt. By the year 2030, the country’s population is forecast to reach about 150 million, and the new prison in Wadi al-Natroun will by then be too small to house all its prisoners. But as in the story about the intersection, it will always be possible to build a newer, bigger prison.