On October 25, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi surprised by announcing the abolition of the state of emergency, because Egypt, he claimed, “has become an oasis of security and stability.”
This decision was welcomed in Egypt and abroad, and has great symbolic significance. Since the founding of Egypt, the state of emergency has been a tool in the hands of the rulers to preserve their power. Following Sadat’s assassination in 1981, a state of emergency was activated again, due to fears of a deterioration in the internal situation. His successor, Mubarak, chose to extend the state of emergency throughout his years in power, which allowed him to silence any opposition to the government through special civil or military courts.
The abolition of the state of emergency was one of the main demands of the protesters of the Arab Spring in Egypt in January 2011. The revolution led to the abolition of the state of emergency, but Sisi returned it to Sinai in 2014, due to increased ISIS terrorism. This situation was extended to all of Egypt in 2017 following terrorist attacks on Christian churches in which 47 people were killed. At the same time, unprecedented repression began not only of the leaders, members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood (also declared a terrorist organization), but also against the youth of the revolution, liberal political activists, human rights activists and journalists.
This decision not to extend the state of emergency does not indicate a change in Sisi’s patterns of control, let alone a change in his attitude to political and civil liberties. The decision was not accompanied by a change or repeal of laws enacted after 2013 that perpetuate the logic of emergency laws. Any local criticism of Sisi has been silenced through a set of laws, such as the Demonstrations Act (2013), which imposes restrictions on demonstrations and the Anti-Terrorism Act (2015), which gives legitimacy to special courts to deal with terrorism-related allegations and violates the right to a fair trial under the pretext of counter-terrorism.
The logic of the state of emergency is also reflected in the amendments to the War on Terror Law and the Essential Public Facilities Law passed by Parliament just a few days after the state of emergency was abolished. These amendments expanded the powers of the president, such as “taking steps to protect national security and public order,” including the possibility of imposing a curfew. Thus, while one hand released, the other hand was re-imprisoned. Parliament has proved, once again, that it is nothing more than a rubber stamp.
This contradiction between the declarations of non-extension of the state of emergency and the actual policy is not surprising, and this is because the Sisi declaration was not aimed at the citizens of Egypt, but at the regional and international community. The statement was intended to highlight Egypt’s stability and victory over terrorism. Moreover, it is a response to the Biden administration’s decision to delay $ 130 million in military aid as long as the human rights situation in Egypt is not improved.
In fact, the announcement of the abolition of the state of emergency is part of a series of measures taken by Sisi to convince the Americans that the regime’s face human rights improvement. The most notable move was when Egypt launched in September a national strategic five-year plan for human rights (2026-2021) representing the regime’s overall conception of improving civil and political rights, alongside economic and social rights.
In addition to military assistance, Sisi needs American support in re-establishing Egypt’s regional status and recognizing its stabilizing role in regional conflicts. Egypt is also seeking American involvement in resolving the complicated water dispute with Ethiopia over the issue of the Renaissance Dam.
These interests were on the agenda at the US-Egyptian Strategic Dialogue held last week in Washington (November 8-9), for the first time since 2015. Despite Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s emphasis on the need for significant human rights improvements to strengthen cooperation between the two countries, That the Americans have common interests with Egypt. The Biden administration seeks to strengthen relations with Egypt and assigns it a significant role in the regional arena, whether in its role as mediator between Israel and Hamas or in areas of instability such as post-military Sudan or Libya facing elections.
In the election campaign, Biden has promised to return human rights treatment to the foreign policy center, but the United States does not intend, as Linken stated, to promote the values of democracy and human rights at the cost of overthrowing authoritarian regimes. These tactics, for him, belong to the past. The United States wants to preserve its strategic ties with the authoritarian regimes that re-emerged after the upheavals of the Arab Spring and so it will adopt limited human rights goals. It will be content with gestures that include statements and at best the selective release of political prisoners.
Human rights activists in Egypt and abroad are not going out of their way in the face of the abolition of the state of emergency. They see it as a first step but not a satisfactory step. They are waiting to see if further steps will be taken to prove that Sisi’s face indeed the implementation of the new national human rights improvement strategy. In the meantime they are not holding their breath.
>>> Prof. Eli Fuda teaches in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a member of the Board of Directors of Mitvim – Israel Institute for Regional Policy; Dr. Basmat Yefet is a faculty member in the Department of Middle Eastern and Political Science at Ariel University