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Egypt saw a spike in terrorist attacks in late June and early July 2015. On 29 June, public prosecutor Hisham Barakat was assassinated in a car-bomb attack. On 1 July, simultaneous assaults on army positions and convoys in the restive North Sinai killed dozens of soldiers.
In the wake of the attacks, the cabinet swiftly passed a controversial anti-terrorism law. Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab defended the move, saying that Egypt “is in a real state of war” and adding that the law would provide “fast and just deterrence of terrorism”. The draft, after review by the legal authorities, will be sent to the president for final approval in the absence of a parliament in Egypt.
The law was not put up for public discussion, a fact that Transitional Justice Minister Ibrahim al-Heneidy explained by saying that it had been prepared years before but had been shelved. When it was unveiled, however, it caused widespread controversy.
The new legislation appears to absolve security personnel enforcing the law from any legal repercussions for the use of force. It grants authorities extra surveillance powers, including monitoring bank accounts and tapping telephone calls. It also extends death and life sentences to include planning, supporting, carrying out, attempting or aiding terrorist acts while broadening the definition of terrorism and terrorist organizations to include vague wording such as attempts to change the regime or the constitution by force or to “disturb the peace of the country”.
Human rights groups condemned the law, with Amnesty International branding it “draconian” and saying it will tighten the iron grip of Egyptian authorities on power. “If approved, it is set to become yet another tool for the authorities to crush all forms of dissent,” said Said Boumedouha, deputy director of the organization’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.
Amnesty International also called on the Egyptian cabinet to scrap the law completely or to “fundamentally revise it” to respect the Egyptian constitution and international human rights laws. “While the Egyptian authorities have an obligation to maintain security, they should not trample all over human rights in the process,” it said.
Article 33 of the law, which stipulates a minimum two-year prison sentence for anyone who reports casualty tolls from militant attacks that deviate from government figures, has caused the greatest public outcry. The article effectively prevents journalists from seeking information from different sources, including eye witnesses and families, say critics.
Egypt’s Journalists Syndicate held an emergency meeting and issued a statement rejecting the article for breaching media freedom. It argued that article 33 in particular was unconstitutional, since article 71 of the constitution prohibits imprisoning journalists for reporting crimes. Said Khaled al-Balshy, a member of the Journalists Syndicate, what made the draft law even more “catastrophic” was that it set official statements as the only benchmark of truth.
Al-Heneidy sought to calm journalists’ fears by reportedly telling the daily al-Masry al-Youm that the new law was aimed at “social media that agitates public opinion and not the press”. The law indeed appears to focus on social media, with one article penalizing anyone found guilty of propagating or aiding in propagating “ideas and beliefs calling for the use of violence” through social media or other tools with up to five years in prison.
A statement issued by 17 human rights organizations in support of the Journalists Syndicate’s position warned that the draft law effectively establishes a new emergency law in perpetuity and creates a parallel legal system, and that its articles could be used to “crush dissent and a swathe of rights and freedoms, such as freedom of opinion and expression and peaceful assembly”.
Human rights organizations also contended there are sufficient laws to address terrorism-related crimes under the penal code without resorting to the exceptional measures outlined in the draft law. Amnesty International estimates that “at least 18 journalists have already been detained on charges that include ‘broadcasting false information’, which is not a recognized under international law.”
The cabinet met with editors-in-chief of the major newspapers and media outlets in Egypt to discuss amending article 33 but failed to reach a consensus. The government promised a further review of the article but said it would not scrap the whole draft law. Unnamed cabinet sources were later quoted in al-Masry al-Youm as saying that a decrease in the penalty stated in the article from two years in prison to a fine of 30,000-50,000 EGP (approximately $3,830-$6,380) was being considered.
The Journalists Syndicate had previously said that such changes would not be sufficient. Human rights groups, meanwhile, have called on the syndicate to reject the draft law in its entirety, saying it could vastly expand the Egyptian authorities’ powers and pave the way for increased human rights breaches.