The Middle East Channel

Ending Egypt’s State of Emergency (sort of)

General Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, announced the lifting of the much-criticized State of Emergency today on the eve of the anniversary of the revolution. Ending the state of emergency has been one of the primary demands of Egyptian activists and civil society, as well as the ...

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images
MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images

General Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, announced the lifting of the much-criticized State of Emergency today on the eve of the anniversary of the revolution. Ending the state of emergency has been one of the primary demands of Egyptian activists and civil society, as well as the international community, for many years. What does it mean? The Middle East Channel asked Nathan Brown, a leading expert on the Egyptian constitution, for his thoughts: 

General Tantawi appears to have given the Egyptian Revolution a tremendous birthday gift — he has ended a state of emergency that has lasted (with only brief interruptions) since the 76-year-old general was four. Except, of course, for the baltagiyya, hooligans or thugs who roam Egyptian streets attacking peaceful citizens and virtuous revolutionaries. 

Ending the state of emergency was one of the most important demands of the revolutionary coalition that ousted President Hosni Mubarak last year. I have read only news accounts of his action, but those make it clear that the fine print makes this a bit less of a gift than it initially appears. As far as I can make out:

  • Tantawi did not repeal the emergency law — that law remains on the books. It would probably be up to the parliament to amend it.
  • What Tantawi did instead was end the state of emergency for most areas. Here is the distinction: the emergency law gets activated upon the declaration of a state of emergency; such a declaration requires parliamentary approval to continue.
  • The state of emergency was approved 2.5 years ago by Mubarak’s rubber-stamp parliament; it was approved at that point for three years. Thus, according to the SCAF, it remains in effect until June 2012. Any extension after June 2012 would require parliamentary approval. It will be the president whose election is promised in June who will have to deal with the full end of the state of emergency.
  • The state of emergency still applies for thuggery. That means, in essence, that the SCAF can transfer thugs to military courts for trial. And that is one of the major complaints of the revolutionary groups, who point out that they have been victims of (rather than protected by) the SCAF’s purported moves against thuggery.
  • Any extension after June 2012 by the newly-elected parliament is politically out of the question unless there is a major change in Egypt’s security situation. Even then it would be politically very difficult to extend the state of emergency. I did ask Freedom and Justice Party deputies about this last week on a brief visit to Cairo; they chuckled at the idea of a renewal. So the revolutionaries may eventually get their gift, but just not on the revolution’s birthday.
  • An argument can be made that the state of emergency has already ended (Tariq al-Bishri holds such a view) but I think that argument has gotten nowhere politically.

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