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Emergency measures a 'catastrophe' for Egypt

Government says rules keep country safe from terrorism but opposition calls them oppressive.

The opposition politician Ayman Nour, left, and another demonstrator hold banners showing a noose labelled
The opposition politician Ayman Nour, left, and another demonstrator hold banners showing a noose labelled "emergency" hanging over a skeleton named "the people of Egypt".

CAIRO // Opposition leaders, rights groups and foreign governments have condemned the extension of Egypt's three-decade state of emergency by a further two years. As members of parliament voted on Tuesday in favour of President Hosni Mubarak's request to extend the controversial law, about 200 people gathered outside chanting "enough emergency", and "emergency laws are illegal".

The government insists the law, which has been in place since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 by Islamist militants, is needed to keep the country safe from terrorists and drug traffickers. Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif reiterated this stance in a statement shortly before the vote. The opposition, however, says the government uses emergency rule to clamp down on political dissent.

The extension was backed by 308 MPs, mostly from the ruling party, while 101 voted against it. The law gives wide powers to the security forces to restrict gatherings, make arbitrary arrests and prolong detentions without trial. It also allows for the trying people by state security courts and civilians by military courts without offering the chance to appeal. Among those criticising the extension was the potential candidate for next year's presidential election, Mohammed ElBaradei, who has been leading the campaign for the annulment of emergency laws in Egypt since February.

The two year extension amounted to "continuation of repression [and] violation of basic freedoms [and] human rights. A day of grief," the former head of the UN's nuclear watchdog wrote on twitter after the law was passed. In a statement yesterday, the Kefaya opposition movement said: "If the state of emergency is being announced to face catastrophes, the continuation of the state of emergency for the past consecutive 30 years is a catastrophe in itself."

Ayman Nour, opposition leader of Al Ghad party, who finished a distant second to Mr Mubarak in the 2005 presidential elections said Egyptians should take a unified unilateral stance against emergency laws. "We should take to the street, and act as if the emergency laws don't exist, and then we'll see what will happen," he said. Gamal Zahran, an independent politician described the existence of the emergency law as "the biggest block in the psychological wall of fear and horror that is preventing Egyptians from political participation and voting in elections."

In 2005, Mr Mubarak, the head of the ruling National Democratic Party, who has ruled since Sadat's death, promised to end the state of emergency and replace it with a counterterrorism law. No progress appears to have been made. Emergency laws were first applied in 1958. Anwar Sadat lifted them for 18 months when he was president, but after he was gunned down during a military parade, Mr Mubarak reinstated them and has renewed them every two years ever since.

The United States and international watchdogs expressed their disappointment that he had decided to continue the pattern. "We call on the Egyptian government to fulfil its pledge to the Egyptian people to replace the emergency law with a counterterrorism law that protects the civil liberties and dignity of Egyptians," Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, said. Human Rights Watch said the Egyptian government had long broken its promise on how it uses the emergency laws.

"In fact, security officials continue to use the emergency law to detain people in cases that have nothing to do with terrorism and instead target political dissent. The law has been used repeatedly against members of the Muslim Brotherhood, activists and bloggers," said the London-based group in a statement. About 32,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and strongest opposition group, which has been banned since 1954, have been arrested in the past 10 years, said the group's leader Mohammed Badie, last month.

Even Al-Ahram, the oldest and largest circulating state-owned daily yesterday questioned the extension of emergency rule. "No Egyptian is happy with the continuation of emergency state or laws and wish it could end today," the newspaper said in an editorial. "At the same time, no single Egyptian would accept ending it without having an umbrella that would protect us from dangers of terrorism ... as well as narcotic trafficking."

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