CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt's parliament Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to extend the country's emergency laws by two years as opposition lawmakers shouted in protest that the real aim was to stifle dissent, not combat terrorism.
The vote was held on short notice in response to President Hosni Mubarak's request that the emergency be extended until May 31, 2012. Mubarak, 82, a staunch U.S. ally, put the law in place on coming to power in 1981 following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat.
The controversial emergency decree has kept the Arab world’s most populous nation under martial law since that time, allowing authorities to conduct arbitrary arrests, hold prisoners indefinitely without trial, and prosecute civilians in military courts.
“Throughout the duration of the emergency status, the conditions will be applied only to counter the dangers of terrorism,” Prime Minister Ahmed Nazief told the parliament, over the the loud protests of opposition lawmakers who sat wearing sashes that said: “No to the emergency law.”
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Some 308 of the 454 lawmakers voted in favor of the decree, 103 voted against it, and 43 were not present. The outcome was anticipated since Mubarak’s National Democratic Party holds the vast majority of seats in parliament.
More than 100 opposition lawmakers and pro-reform activists demonstrated outside parliament protesting the law’s extension.
Human rights organizations and opposition figures have criticized the decree as providing legal cover to stifle dissent. Demonstrators said Tuesday the government had made similar pledges in the past that it would apply the law only to combat terrorists – but in fact it had used the decree to suffocate political reform and development.
As Egypt prepares for parliamentary elections this fall and presidential polls next year, lawmakers from the opposition and pro-reform activists have made the laws a centerpiece of their many grievances against Mubarak’s authoritarian rule.
In addition to the broad detention measures, the emergency decree restricts freedom of speech, prohibits demonstrations and limits gatherings to five people — tools the regime has employed in past elections.
“Nobody is against procedures that effectively protect from any real danger, on the condition that no one uses terrorism as a pretext to restrict political freedoms and rig elections,” Hassan Nafaa, a prominent university professor and pro-reform activist, wrote this month in the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Yom.
Mubarak’s political allies argued that the perpetual state of emergency is still an important part of Egypt’s counterterrorism strategy. They cited attacks by regional Islamist movements and the recent prosecution in Egypt of a militant cell with alleged links to the Lebanese group Hezbollah.
In a speech last week, Mubarak himself defended his authoritarian rule from criticism, saying “there is no room at this critical phase for those who confuse change with chaos.”
Independent human rights organizations, however, have compiled startling accounts of how the emergency decree is used well beyond the realm of militants. The Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, a local victim advocacy group, documented 100 alleged human rights violations related to the emergency law within the last two months.
The oppositions’ demands include constitutional amendments to allow for free elections with impartial judicial supervision. Among their fears: that security forces are becoming so emboldened that their excesses will go beyond even what they’re allowed to do under the emergency law.
“There is an entire generation of police officers who have grown up under the emergency law and think of it as the norm, not the exception,” said Emad Mubarak, who runs an independent Cairo-based group that advocates academic and creative freedom of expression. “The danger now is that they have started to surpass the emergency charter and are behaving in an even worse manner because they know that their actions will go unpunished.”
According to Human Rights Watch’s 2010 report, Egypt continuously suppresses political dissent, while the international watchdog estimates that between 5,000 and 10,000 people are held in detention without charge.
(Naggar is a McClatchy special correspondent)