Egypt's Emergency Law(lessness)

It's not entirely clear why Khaled Said, a 28-year-old Egyptian, was approached by police on June 6 while sitting in a cyber cafe in Alexandria. Nor is it known why those particular security officers felt compelled to drag Said outside and, without any sort of provocation, beat him to death

Yet in the context of Egypt's ongoing state of emergency — a sweeping legal framework that for nearly 30 years has empowered the Egyptian security apparatus to arrest, detain, and abuse citizens of all stripes under the pretext of anti-terrorism — this recent case of police brutality is altogether unsurprising. Even predictable.

Against the wishes of the UN Human Rights Council, Western governments, international and domestic NGOs, and its own people, last month the Egyptian regime renewed its Emergency Law for another two years. And although officials from President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party made an effort to preempt an international backlash by adverstising the new law as a scaled-back, measured approach, many viewed the changes as purely cosmetic in nature, constituting less of a structural reformation than a poorly conceived public relations campaign.

Considered by itself, the extension of the Emergency Law may not warrant a substantial rethinking of international relationships — security, diplomatic, aid — with Egypt. It is, after all, more or less the status quo. However, when judged in the current political environment, it's difficult to view this assault on personal and political rights as anything other than the latest iteration of increasing government subjugation. Let's recap.

In 2005, President Mubarak allowed a marginal opening of the electoral process, giving hope to oppositionists who sought greater representation. Although Mubarak soundly defeated his opponent Ayman Nour in the presidential contest that year, the Muslim Brotherhood surprised many by winning 20 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament. Perturbed by the Brotherhood's political potency, the Mubarak regime slowly and methodically cracked down on Brotherhood activities and closed much of the political space it had previously opened. Just this past winter, after an internal Muslim Brotherhood election that saw the ascension of a slightly more conservative leader, the regime arrested dozens of MB members on multiple occasions.

However, Islamists aren't the only government target. Prominent bloggers have been arrested. Peaceful protesters have been violently attacked and detained. The Egyptian government proposed a new NGO law that would further restrict an already enfeebled NGO community. And perhaps most worrisome, in what was seen as a bellwhether for the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in late 2010 and fall 2011, Egypt's recent Shura Council poll was widely regarded as neither free nor fair, with opposition parties winning only four of the 88 seats in play despite many Muslim Brotherhood candidates running in areas they won handily in 2005.

All of this is happening amid a not-so-subtle internal struggle over presidential succession, the assumption being that Mubarak — 82 years old and in poor health — will be either unwilling or unable to run again come the 2011 election. It's conceivable that the Mubarak's ruling NDP is attempting cut down the pillars of the opposition movement before it has a chance to mobilize a powerful groundswell, thus protecting the regime as it continues to sort out the line of succession.

These measures have become necessarily more draconian in recent months due to a couple of new factors, the most powerful of which is the growing movement for constitutional reforms to allow independent candidates to run for president. Former International Atomic Energy Agency chief and prospective presidential contender Mohamed ElBaradei brought this issue to the forefront after he returned to Egypt earlier this year and formed a new coalition to push for reforms to improve political pluralism. Others, including the 6 April Youth Movement, have since latched onto this campaign as a means to establish the architecture for future political challenges.

But the central roadblock remains, one which only a few weeks ago manifested in the form of a brutal and bloody beating. The Emergency Law allows regime officials to act with impunity, free from the constraints of judicial principles such as due process or probable cause. It's difficult to imagine a durable and unified opposition movement emerging under such lawless conditions. Still, the more the regime attempts to tighten its clasp, the more it reveals itself as a vulnerable body that's uncertain over its own post-Mubarak composition. Perhaps there's hope in that uncertainty, as well as political fissures to be exploited. Yet without greater amounts of international pressure on the regime, it remains to be seen whether the opposition movement can organize to take advantage of this period of possible upheaval. 

Egypt, Human Rights, NGO, United Nations