New York Times
July 16, 2015
For decades, Egypt’s authoritarian leaders used the Emergency Law to oppress and intimidate government critics under the guise of national security. In coming weeks, officials are expected to pass a new, similarly repressive law that would give authorities even more sweeping powers to continue cracking down on government critics and censor the press.
Passing the so-called counter-terrorism law, which has been in the works for several months, has become a priority for the government after recent high-profile attacks by militants in Cairo and the Sinai Peninsula.
While Egyptians are understandably unnerved by the growing violence, the new power sought by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi should be subject to greater scrutiny. Egypt is already a police state.
Recent drafts of the counter-terrorism law and other steps the government has taken stand to make it even more repressive. That should be of deep concern to Egyptians and the country’s allies, including the United States, because such tactics will likely embolden extremist groups if disaffected Egyptians are allowed no avenues to express their grievances.
Under the bill, people could become the subject of terrorism investigations if the government merely asserts that they “disturb public order and social peace,” harm “national unity” and hurt the country’s economy. And the bill would establish special courts for terrorism suspects that would deliver swift verdicts and expands the list of offenses that would be punishable by death.
Such tribunals would only worsen a pattern of hasty trials for Islamists, many of whom have been sentenced to death in mass proceedings. Former President Mohamed Morsi, who was ousted in a 2013 coup, is among those who has been sentenced to death on dubious evidence.
Egypt is currently detaining at least 18 journalists for reporting information government officials deemed inaccurate, according to Amnesty International. The new law would create even greater press restrictions. For instance, journalists would be allowed only to report statistics and details about terrorist attacks from official sources.
In recent weeks, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry has begun issuing new guidelines to muffle even international journalists. Officials recently handed out a list of terms reporters should not use in describing terrorist organizations, including Islamists, fundamentalists, jihadists and the Islamic State. Instead, journalists are to describe them as “savages, slayers, destroyers and eradicators.”
Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, American officials have not publicly expressed concern about the counter-terrorism law. The State Department, in a statement to The Times, would only say the United States supports Egypt’s “fight against terrorism, but we hope that the final version of this law will support the protection of individual rights for Egyptians.”
That’s laughable. Obama administration officials and congressional lawmakers have been all too willing to overlook the abuses because they see Egypt as an indispensable ally in a volatile region. In recent weeks, House and Senate members passed versions of the foreign aid bill that fail to make the annual $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt contingent on it taking steps to protect human rights and govern democratically.
In past years, Congress sought to discourage growing authoritarianism by requiring the State Department to certify that Egypt was meeting those criteria. Now, it is merely asking that Cairo adhere to the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and remain an American ally. By giving up on worthwhile goals, lawmakers have become complicit in Egypt’s repression.