Egypt's military rulers announced that a decades-old emergency law curtailing civil rights will continue until at least next June.
Ending the controversial law was a key demand of Egyptian protesters who forced former President Hosni Mubarak from power in February. But the military, which planned to lift the emergency law before parliamentary elections scheduled in November, said last week it had no choice but to employ the draconian measure after a mob attack on the Israeli Embassy earlier this month.
Scores of supporters of Egyptians facing trials under the emergency law gathered in downtown Cairo last week to protest the military's decision. They and other critics charge the law that allows for arbitrary arrests and harsh sentences with no appeal is being used by Egypt's military rulers to impose their will.
Among those facing emergency court is Tawfiq Mohammed Sarhan, a 23-year-old student. He was among 39 people arrested in the Giza neighborhood after a mob attacked the Israeli Embassy there on Sept. 9.
Supporters applauded Sarhan's mother when she asked why the military was using the same law Mubarak created 30 years ago to punish his political enemies. She and other relatives of those swept up in a mass arrest in front of the embassy complain that no effort was made to distinguish between passersby and those involved in the attack.
Sarhan's sister Naiyera said her brother was walking home, but stopped to call the fire department because a police station near the embassy was in flames. She said she found it ironic that Mubarak and his allies were being afforded their full rights under Egyptian law while ordinary citizens were being stripped of theirs.
"How come, how come my brother who didn't do anything ... goes to the emergency law courts, and the others, who really destroyed the country, go to normal or civilian courts?" she asked.
A military official, who spoke on the condition he not be identified or recorded, said the ruling council was using the emergency law to restore law and order. He said the military expanded the existing emergency law to cover people who conduct sit-ins, shut down roads or "circulate rumors."
Retired Maj. Gen. Mohamed Kadry Said, a senior analyst with the state-funded Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said the law also allowed the military to bypass lengthy civilian proceedings and deal more quickly with those it deemed a threat to national security.
"They are under pressure because the economy is deteriorating because of security and they cannot make some achievement in security without using this law," he said.
'A Complete Farce'
But Ragia Omran, a human rights lawyer, predicted the military decision will backfire.
She, like many Egyptians, believes the military is trying to deflect a growing backlash over the more than 12,000 civilians it has hauled before military courts since Mubarak was ousted. Those military tribunals, like the emergency courts, bypass Egyptian civil rights laws and lead to stiff sentences, Omran says.
"They think this is the way of getting ... the pressure off them, but it's only going to make it worse," she said. "Because actually there are only going to be more people against the emergency law than there were against the military courts because it affects everybody's lives. ... It's a complete farce."
Ahmed Maher agrees. He is the co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement that helped lead the uprising earlier this year. He was arrested repeatedly by state security officers during the Mubarak era under the emergency law.
Maher accuses the military rulers of using the law to exert control over groups that disagree with them and to keep them from running in the upcoming elections.
"We had a revolution but in the end, they are still trying to bring back the old system and policies," he said in Arabic. "The only person they've replaced is Mubarak."
Meanwhile, the military rulers say they will lift the emergency law when they feel circumstances in Egypt allow it.
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