The assassination of Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat—the first attempt on a senior official’s life since a bombing targeted the Interior Minister in 2013—came as a shock. With the attack taking place in highly secured area in Cairo —the Military Academy neighborhood—the threat suddenly felt much closer to home for many. One of the government’s first responses to his assassination has been to draft a second anti-terror law. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, at Barakat’s funeral on June 30, said, “The hand of justice is tied by the law and this will not remain the case. We will modify the laws in a way that enables us to see justice done as fast as possible.” A day after Sisi’s statements, the government announced the draft law. The new anti-terror law authorized by the State Council’s Legislative Department and approved by the Cabinet, is now awaiting Sisi’s approval.
What Does the Law Say?
While Egypt’s Terrorist Entities law approved last year provides definitions for terrorist groups and actions, the draft anti-terror law echoes these definitions. According to Article 1 of the law, a terrorist act is one that is conducted with the intent to harm public order, social peace, and national unity. It also defines a terrorist act as one that hinders the “application of provisions of the constitution, laws, or regulations.”
Powers Granted to the State: The law gives the president the right to “take all the necessary measures to maintain security and order in case of an impending threat.” According to Article 51 of the law, these measures include imposing a curfew on restive and/or endangered areas, and evacuating or isolating these areas for a maximum of six months. This measure, however, cannot be implemented, or extended, without approval from parliament. Egypt, however, has been without a parliament for over two years, and parliamentary elections have repeatedly been postponed after the Supreme Constitutional Court deemed the electoral law governing the elections unconstitutional. In the absence of parliament, Egypt’s president has full legislative power.
Without this law in place, the president has the right to declare a state of emergency for a maximum of three months, renewable only once following parliaments’ approval. It is with this state of emergency that authorities are able to impose a curfew. With this law, on the other hand, authorities can impose a curfew without officially declaring state of emergency, circumventing the limits on this power enshrined in the constitution. There is also no limit on the number of times the curfew can be renewed, provided it is done with parliamentary approval.
The law also grants police the right to arrest suspects without warrants. They can only be detained for 24 hours, after which they have to be referred to the General Prosecution. The Prosecutor’s office then has the right to extend the detention for a period of seven days. Authorities are granted the right to take other measures against suspects who, through preliminary investigations, are shown to be implicated in terrorist activities. These include freezing bank accounts, enacting travel bans, and closing down and/or evacuating businesses, homes, and offices.
The law allows authorities investigating terrorist cases to record phone calls, monitor electronic correspondences and social network activities, intercept packages and mail, and install cameras in private places.
Restrictions on Rights and Freedoms: Article 33 in the law states that journalists who publish information that runs “contrary to official statements,” about terrorist attacks could face up to two years in jail. The law states: “Everyone who intentionally publishes incorrect news and information about terrorist attacks and which contradict official statement by the relevant bodies will be sentenced to a minimum of two years in jail.” This article in particular has garnered a significant backlash.
The Journalists’ Syndicate issued a statement criticizing the draft law, particularly Article 33, arguing it violates the freedom of the press granted by the constitution. The syndicate statement read, “The law opens the door for the suppression of press freedom and the return of censorship and violates all rights granted to journalists by law.” It added, “The law blatantly violates Article 71 of the constitution and which prohibits the imprisonment of journalists for publication offenses.”
The statement added that while the syndicate fully supports the state in its war on terror, it does not believe that the war can be won by issuing laws that curb freedoms and violate the constitution. Justice Minister Ahmed al-Zend defended the restrictions as a necessary precaution. “It is the state’s responsibility to protect its citizen against false information,” he said. “If the official statement says that the number of deaths in an attack is ten, nobody can say twenty. This affects the morale of Egyptians.” Zend suggested that the number of victims in the July 1 attacks on the Sinai had been exaggerated. “This part of the law is only about figures,” he explained. Journalist Mostafa Bakri was among those in support of the law, including Article 33 in particular. “Egypt is in a state of war and this imposes exceptional measures to confront the enemy,” he said. He defended Article 33 saying that it would be applied if journalists “intentionally” spread false information.
The government, however, now appears to be walking back Article 33. Zend admitted that the Journalists’ Syndicate should have been consulted when the law was being drafted, and following a meeting with Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab, the syndicate is now submitting its amendments to the cabinet. Former syndicate head Diaa Rashwan recommended a fine in place of a prison sentence, and added that the courts would be required to prove “intent and malice” in publishing information contradicting official statements.
Gamal Eid, head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), had expressed his concern over the possible human rights violations the state could commit under the new law. “The worst blow to democracy is when the state uses terrorist attacks as a pretext for repression,” he said. “The recent attacks offer the perfect excuse for the regime to engage in a wider scope of clampdowns.” Eid criticized the state for taking part in what he called “revenge hysteria.” He said, “Laws are supposed to maintain order in society, not to satisfy the vengeful desires of those who only want to see more repression.” Seventeen other NGOs among the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, issued a joint statement condemning the law, in part, because its vague articles “equate political parties, trade unions, and rights organizations with terrorist organizations.”
Judicial Powers: The law establishes a special court for terrorism cases, and would see several exceptions in the judicial process implemented. These include reducing the period in which a verdict can be appealed from sixty to forty days, and allowing the verdict to be appealed only once. While verdicts issued in absentia in Egypt are eligible for automatic appeal, a provision in the law allows the court to appoint defense counsel, and if the defense counsel has made his defense, the court can issue a verdict as though the defendant were present. The Court of Cassation is also given the right to issue a final verdict on appeals, rather than refer the case back to the Criminal Court.
While the state sought approval from the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) for the new law, the judicial body objected to some of these proposed articles. The SJC objected to reducing the period in which an appeal be submitted, recommending that it is restored to sixty. It also objected to the establishing of a special court for terrorist activities and suggested instead creating a new department in regular courts to look into terrorist crimes.
Nasser Amin, member of the National Council of Human Rights (NCHR) and head of the Arab Center for Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession (ACIJLP), had expressed his surprise that the state sought approval from the Supreme Judicial Council for the new law. “The council is supposed to look into laws related to the judiciary, which is not the case with this law,” he said. “I believe such a move only aimed at endowing the law with legitimacy.” The NCHR, on the other hand, was not consulted on the law
Punishments: The law also provides a list of crimes punishable by death, such as founding, managing, or occupying a leading position in a terrorist organization, funding terrorist operations, and carrying out a terrorist attack that leads to the death of at least one person. Forcing individuals to join a terrorist organization or preventing them from leaving is also punishable by life imprisonment if none of these individuals subsequently die; if a death occurs, the offender receives a death sentence.
What has been said in Support of the Law?
Judge Yehia Qadri, the deputy head of former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq’s, Egyptian National Movement Party, argued that the law is necessary to eliminate terrorism and refuted claims that it is bound to infringe of freedoms. “When the nation is in danger, it is important for all of us to unite against this one enemy,” he said. “Considering the law a restriction of freedom betrays an extremely short-sighted perception. National security is the priority at the moment.”
General Refaat Abdel Meguid, former Deputy Interior Minister, said that the law is not really about punishment as much as it is about preemptive measures and precautionary procedures. “The law is also credited for defining for the first time terms like ‘terrorism,’ ‘terrorist,’ and ‘terrorist entities.’ Those definitions cover what already exists and what might come up in the future.”
Judge Tahani al-Gebali, former deputy chairman of the Supreme Constitutional Court, argued that Egypt is in a state of war and the law had to be issued immediately. “There was no time to wait for establishing a dialogue about with different factions as some requested,” she said, suggesting the establishment of a ministry of war and crisis management to fight terrorism. Gebali also supported the article that punishes journalists. “It is very normal to impose restrictions on the media in cases of emergency.” In the wake of the brazen attack on Sheikh Zuweid and the Barakat’s assassination, there also appears to exist significant support for exceptional measures that will exact revenge on the perpetrators of these attacks.
Egypt faces a continuing and legitimate terror threat, with eyewitnesses saying that Sheikh Zuweid in north Sinai reportedly came under militant control for up to ten hours, before the military regained full control of the area. An estimated 300 soldiers and police have been killed in the first quarter of 2015 alone, compared to 700 killed in almost a year and a half from July 2013 to the end of 2014. While the threat remains very real, the question that remains unanswered is whether anti-terror laws can coexist with democracy and human rights.
Sonia Farid, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Cairo University. She is a translator, editor, and political activist. Her social work focuses on political awareness and women’s rights and her writing interests include society, politics, and security in Egypt. She took part in a number of local and international conferences and published several academic papers. She can be reached at [email protected]