A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Egypt Emergency Extended: But a Kinder, Gentler Emergency?

Egypt has yet again extended its State of Emergency by two years.

Those my age may recall a running joke back when Saturday Night Live first debuted in the 1970s: the newscast reporting that Generalissimo Francisco Franco was still dead. For Egypt, the Emergency's continual renewals are not only a reminder that Anwar Sadat is still dead, but that, almost 29 years since his assassination, the reaction to the assassination is ongoing. For indeed, that's what the Emergency stems from. Of course, Sadat would turn 92 this year and even Mubarak will presumably retire by that age, but the Emergency persists.

In the 2005 Presidential elections, the first in which Husni Mubarak competed directly against a range of opposition candidates (without any danger of losing, of course), he promised to lift the Emergency Law and replace it with an anti-terrorism law. This has not yet happened, but heck, it's only been five years, and it's not like he has a rubber-stamp Parliament. (Oh, wait. He does.) Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif explained in his speech on extending the Emergency (a speech left to the Prime Minister as Chief Technocrat, not to the President to whom, as we learn below, the law is "abhorrent"):
To that end, the President of the Republic committed himself in his electoral platform to lift the state of emergency and formulate a new counter terrorism law which would balance personal freedom with the interests and security of society. The Government reiterated this commitment a few weeks ago before the UN Human Rights Council, and today the Government restates this commitment to the representatives of the nation to lift the state of emergency as soon as a balanced law is adopted which does not permit the use of extraordinary investigation measures unless necessary to counter terrorism, and then only under complete supervision by the judiciary. The Government is committed to presenting this law for public discussion, and to deliberate on it with the National Council for Human Rights and the civil society organisations.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Previously the Government had stated that it was requesting an extension of the state of emergency even though it was abhorrent to it, because we do not wish to govern under extraordinary conditions, but at the same time we do not wish to squander what we have achieved. Our achievements may not rise to the level of our ambitions or fulfil all our hopes, but we hold on to them, desiring to improve and develop them. They were not achieved easily, surrounded as we are by an unstable region, threats of terrorism around the world, and an unforeseen severe financial crisis. Nonetheless, and notwithstanding these conditions, we have been able to implement gradual political reform, and achieved economic growth which many states failed to accomplish. We were able to create job opportunities for our youth, and we are committed to increase them and wipe out unemployment, which is our highest priority and a major weapon against terrorism.

While it would be unjust to credit the stability we enjoy, and which has permitted us to achieve so much, to the emergency law alone, it would also be unjust to ignore the fact that the application of the emergency law has spared the nation the threats of terrorism and stopped many terrorist crimes before they could be committed.

Yes, the government is again extending the State of Emergency even though it is "abhorrent to it." (Full English text of the speech can be found here.) It's purely to prevent terrorism and narcotics trafficking. (And Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.)

Even so, Nazif went out of his way to make it clear that this would be a kinder, gentler Emergency Law. The government is sensitive to the bad reputation the law carries with it, and is trying to soften it a bit.

But if the tone of the renewal is a bit Orwellian, let's be fair to the Egyptian government here as well. In Saddam Hussein's Iraq, nobody bothered to pass Emergency Laws. There was no effort to pretend to a rule of law. Egypt at least keeps officially extending the Emergency. Yes, it restricts freedom of expression, assembly, and much else. But Egypt for all its faults is not Saddam's Iraq, Asad's Syria, or even Ben ‘Ali's Tunisia. There is an independent press which can criticize the Emergency Law, here for example, a still relatively independent judiciary which is divided over extending the law, and the renewed but kinder, gentler law will, apparently, be more limited.

Egyptians sometimes note that they come in for a lot of Western criticism even though their press and society is, in many ways, freer than a lot of other Arab countries. The criticism is accurate but, I think, misunderstands the reasons for the critique. Egypt is still the largest Arab country, the country so many others have followed and looked to; it was one of the first to defy colonial rule and one of the first to evoke pan-Arab emotions. It has also been one of the most liberal and open societies in the Arab world, outside of Lebanon at least, and it has the oldest media and the richest cinema and television culture.

Of those to whom much is given, much is expected. Egypt is arguably the oldest culture in the world, certainly the oldest unified nation. It has a deep, rich role in Arab history and in the history of Arab nationalism. Egyptians would be (rightly, I think) insulted if one compared them to Yemen or Jordan or Libya, so the government really should not be tempted by the "we're not as bad as Syria" argument.

And, precisely because the press is freer and more independent, it's easier to see the failings. I don't expect Egypt anytime soon to replicate what happened yesterday in London, when after 13 years in office the ruling party handed over power to the opposition, letting the Queen do the one constitutional duty left to her. But even though there is considerable openness in Egypt compared to its Arab neighbors, the Emergency Law remains a thorn in the side of the opposition, and its renewal, even if in kinder, gentler, form, is a constant reminder that Egypt's relatively open society (though lacking political democracy) can still be constrained and the open windows closed at any time.

Criticism of Egyptian lack of democracy is not because it is the worst Arab country in these matters, but because it is one of the best, but still falls so short of what it could be.


David Mack said...

Agree with almost everything you say here. We do expect more from Egypt, and Egyptians, including Mubarak, should take pride in that.

David Mack said...

Lead editorial in Washington Post was hyper-critical of Mubarak and, by implication, of the Obama Administration. The title tells it all: "Will the Obama Administration enable more of Hosni Mubarak's autocracy?" This is typical of the combined neo-Con and neo-Wilsonian approach of WaPo. Surely those Wogs in Cairo will hop if we say jump. After all, it's in their best interest. (This worked so well when George W. Bush declared himself to be a revolutionary colleague of Sa'ad ad-Din Ibrahim.} Deputy Editor of the WaPo editorial page, Jackson Diehl, is always free to opine in this manner. For the full text, if you are interested: