Raising the Stakes: Egyptians Have Questions About a New Emergency Law and the State of Security

The dead were buried without a mass.

On April 9, two suicide bombers hit two churches in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria in Egypt. The next day, the first burial was held for seven of those killed at St Mina Monastery in King Mariout, on the outskirts of Alexandria. The Eastern Orthodox Church does not hold public funeral masses during Holy Week before Easter, so hundreds of mourners attended a funeral and burial without the standard mass service. Some of them had been there before—St Mina is where those who were killed in the blast at Two Saints Church in Alexandria in 2011 lie.

The dead were not all Christians—seven police personnel, all Muslims, were among the 46 dead and three of them, all women, were buried the same day as the St Mina funerals.

The Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) claimed responsibility for the blasts, both perpetrated by suicide bombers whom Egyptian security have now identified. They had also claimed responsibility for the blast at St Peter and St Paul Church in Cairo, on December 11, 2016. Less than 24 hours after the double blast, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared a national state of emergency (SOE), the country’s first since August 14, 2013, in the aftermath of the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi. The attacks, and the consequent state of emergency have raised questions on two issues; the first on what the state of emergency is likely to mean for Egypt and the second on the state of security.

The first is not necessarily simpler but it is less likely to require a crystal ball.

There has been a flurry of tense analysis of the potential impact of the state of emergency by the media and analysts. Egyptians have been more sanguine about it; after all, the country has seen one form or other of martial law, and later, state of emergency, since 1914, when the British declared martial law while fighting the Ottoman empire. And in more recent history, much of the population has lived under a state of emergency; one was declared after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in October 1981 and was allowed to lapse in 2012. In August 2013, one was imposed for three months. However, several factors need to be taken into consideration when examining the current circumstances.

To start, the law was allowed to lapse in 2012, no small feat in itself. Second, there are several laws that intersect with and will take precedence over the current emergency law, including the Penal Code amendments of 2014, the Terrorist Entities law of 2015, and the Counter-Terrorism law of the same year. Third, following the January 2011 uprisings, measures were put in place to curb the extent and duration of emergency laws, which, under the constitution, may only last three months. In 2013, two decades of legal deliberation came to fruition; following a challenge in 1993, an amendment was made to article 3 of the existing law (Emergency Law 162 of 1958) which deemed that, under a state of emergency, the right of the president to authorize arrest and search of places and persons without complying with the provisions of the penal code were unconstitutional. In other words, there could be no search or arrest without a warrant.

The following is the scope of the president under the Emergency law:

  • The right to restrict the freedom of persons to meet, move, stay, move in certain places or times, and to assign any person to perform any work.
  • The right to monitor messages of any kind and monitor newspapers, leaflets, publications, editorials, cartoons, and all means of expression and publicity before publication, seizure, confiscation and closure of places of printing. In practice, this is likely to be the biggest change under the SOE, since unofficial pressure on media to toe the party line will become enforceable under law.
  • The following might also be included: opening and closing of public shops, as well as the closure of all or some shopat the President’s discretion. The seizure of any movable or real estate and the order to impose on companies and institutions, as well as postponement of the performance of debts and obligations owed.
  • Withdrawal of licenses for weapons, ammunition, explosive materials or explosives of all kinds, and order the delivery and seizure and closure of weapons stores. The removal of some areas (geographical) or their isolation, the organization of means of transport and the restriction of transportation and identification between different regions.

The issue, of course, is that any case brought under this law is referred to the Supreme State Security Courts, which allow no recourse or repeal, except at the sole discretion of the president. Since it is not possible for the president to personally oversee all the above, he may delegate authority, appointing various personnel, for example, delegating the Ministry of Interior to monitor communications or appointing only those judges assigned to the Supreme State Security courts. In essence, this places judicial appointment procedure with the presidency, but only for those courts.

There are three points that should be borne in mind. The first is that Egypt’s restricted space for freedom of expression is likely to shrink even further under the emergency law. The second is that necessary delegation of authority by the president will further consolidate power within the executive branch, particularly considering the apparently cooperative attitude of parliament. “Parliament’s intent to suspend all active legislation, whilst enacting a flurry of laws to consolidate further power to the executive, has sent the clearest signal yet of how the governing powers expect the emergency law to come into force,” notes Hafsa Halawa, a legal and political analyst focusing on the Middle East and North Africa.  

And lastly, the legal terrain is a confusing one.

Egypt has a vast, convoluted legal landscape and there has been intermittent jockeying for power between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Power in Egypt is not consolidated solely in the presidency—far from it. The judiciary in particular has tended to display a stubborn streak of independence that has tossed wrenches into the executive branch wheels.  To name a few examples, the Court of Cassations (Egypt’s highest court of appeals) has overturned or dismissed many verdicts from the terrorism circuits, the much-despised protest law has had sections overturned by the Supreme Constitutional Court and, of course, the Administrative Court last June voided a government decision to hand sovereignty of two disputed Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia. The judiciary is likely to be watching the president very carefully to see how he chooses to apply the law under the SOE. However, the situation is a delicate one. The executive branch will stress that the SOE requires that all branches pull together for the sake of the country. Traditionally, ‘pulling together’ has translated into all branches giving a unified outlook emanating from the executive branch. This may be an opportune time for the executive to get an unruly judiciary in line and the consequences could be far-reaching.  “How the judiciary responds and indeed, takes upon itself its duty and obligation to correctly interpret and implement laws, will ultimately determine what Egypt looks like in the coming period,” notes Halawa.

The legal developments are vital but the second set of questions thrown up by the terrorist attacks are just as crucial.

While terrorist attacks in myriad cities around the world have made it painfully clear that it is impossible to keep such incidents to zero, two attacks on a major holiday is a significant escalation. And while security is a lynchpin of any government worldwide, in this case it is especially relevant since the government has presented countering terrorism as the major reason for its increasingly rigid rule. A device was found and defused less than 10 days earlier at the St Girgis church in Tanta (one of the two churches hit in the April 9 bombings), so clearly it was a target. The Ministry of Interior identified as Mamdouh Baghdadi as the bomber. According to the Interior Ministry, he had been trained by a fugitive terrorist named Amr Abbas, who had also trained the Alexandria bomber Mahmoud Hassan Mubarak Abdallah. Abbas, says the ministry, also had links to the bomb blast at the St Peter’s and St Paul’s church last December. Baghdadi had actually been denied entry to the church last Sunday but managed to slip in via a side entrance. The immediate sacking of the security head of the Gharbeya governorate may have been a sign that there were questions about the security precautions. The question of security is especially relevant  since economics and security were bulwarks of the president’s election platform. While Egypt’s urban inflation and core inflation index has started to slow down, in the first sign of price stabilization after a huge currency devaluation, it’s still at roughly 30.9 percent and the government will continue to push on with economic reforms, including subsidy cuts.

The attacks on cities have not surprised ISIS experts; the consensus is, the more of a beating the group takes on the field in Iraq and Syria, the more it turns to easier and more media-grabbing victories in cities, so that it can regain its narrative and find recruits. While there has been rampant speculation and paranoia about ISIS destabilizing Egypt, Mokhtar Awad, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, believes it is far too early to jump to that conclusion. “ISIS is still far from having an established presence in the Nile Valley that can sustain this level of activity in the long term, but if the government is unable to detect and disrupt cells that may not continue to be the case,” he says. “What decides whether things escalate or not is government action to disrupt these cells, which is likely to happen if it takes some time.”

Mirette F. Mabrouk is deputy director and director of research & programs at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: Photo: Mourners undergo a security check before attending the funeral of the victims of Palm Sunday bombings, at the Monastery of Saint Mina "Deir Mar Mina" in Alexandria, Egypt April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh