President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made a surprise announcement on October 25 that he was ending Egypt’s state of emergency, which had been in effect since the April 2017 church bombings.
- When Egypt’s state of emergency was in effect, the government had sweeping, unchecked powers to suspend civil and political liberties, including restricting movement and assembly, censoring information, and referring civilians to State Security Emergency Courts, which have no appeals process and violate due process in other ways.
- Lifting the state of emergency was among the seven steps that five prominent Egyptian rights organizations earlier this year described as the “minimum requirements to begin restoring the dignity and rights of all Egyptians.”
- One of those organizations, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), called al-Sisi’s move “a positive step in the right direction.” EIPR noted that civilians will no longer be referred to the emergency courts, though those courts will continue to handle cases that have already been referred to them, such as the ongoing prosecutions of activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, lawyer Mohamed El-Baqer, and blogger Mohamed “Oxygen” Ibrahim on what have been called “fabricated charges.”
- Human Rights Watch (HRW) described al-Sisi’s state of emergency announcement as “positive, but far from sufficient to begin to quell the country’s prolonged human rights crisis.”
Eight Egyptian human rights groups had a somewhat less positive take, stating that al-Sisi’s decision “has negligible impact in practice, as the rule of law has been inoperative in Egypt since the July 2013 military coup.”
- They added, “In recent years, there has been an onslaught of repressive laws enacted that have codified the exceptional state of emergency into ordinary law.”
- The groups pointed to laws that are still operative—including on counterterrorism, demonstrations, and the media—that grant authorities vast repressive powers. They also noted that “trials in the terrorism circuits and military courts, and even in the ordinary criminal courts, continue to disregard all due process rights and guarantees for a fair trial, the same as state security emergency courts.”
- The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information stressed that “any sincere political will to open new horizons for democracy must be reflected through concrete practical measures on the ground,” including releasing the thousands of prisoners of conscience in the country, ending censorship of the media, and ensuring that if those facing trial before emergency courts do not have their unjust charges dismissed, that they at least be referred to standard criminal courts instead.
- Other organizations added demands for ending prolonged and open-ended pretrial detention, retrying those sentenced to death (many in unfair mass trials), and amending or removing the many oppressive laws that remain on the books.
Meanwhile, the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights’ discussion on October 27 about detention conditions and the treatment of human rights defenders in Egypt highlighted the dismal rights situation that persists in the country even with the end of the state of emergency.
The panelists included Mona Seif (the sister of jailed activists Alaa Abdel Fattah and Sanaa Seif), Committee for Justice Executive Director Ahmed Mefreh, human rights lawyer Halem Henish, and the parents and lawyer of Giulio Regeni.
Seif spoke of how being deprived of his most basic rights in prison has led her brother to express suicidal thoughts. The abusive conditions of Abdel Fattah’s detention shed light on the grim reality of Egyptian prisons.
Henish stated that the lifting of the state of emergency means little without applying other steps, calling specifically for the immediate release of Abdel Fattah and other political prisoners, while Mefreh discussed Egyptian authorities’ widespread and continuing use of torture.
Giulio Regeni’s parents, meanwhile, asked to “see actions instead of words” from European Union (EU) institutions and member states, criticizing ongoing weapon sales to Egypt even as its government continues to obstruct the investigation into their son’s murder.
The EU “has a moral obligation to place human rights among its priorities in its partnership and cooperation with Egypt,” Mefreh concluded, adding that it cannot tackle its “other priorities of combating migration and extremism” without addressing the rights situation that “threaten[s] security and social stability in the country.”