In a statement released on Wednesday, Human Rights Watch warned that the “broadly worded” definition of terrorism in Egypt’s newly imposed anti-terrorism law could lead to its use to curb civil disobedience.
Discussion of an anti-terrorism law within the government was revived following the assassination of General Prosecutor Hesham Barakat last June. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ratified the law – a power he has maintained in the absence of a parliament – on Sunday.
While HRW conceded that Egypt is facing “a serious and deadly insurgency,” it cautioned that “eroding basic rights, curtailing dissent, and using ‘terrorism’ as a cudgel against opponents is no way to win the battle for hearts and minds,” as stated by Nadim Houry, HRW deputy Middle East and North Africa director.
HRW criticized the increased powers granted to the government and the prosecution under the law, which allows authorities to impose sentences including the death penalty for broadly defined crimes, and gives prosecutors greater power to detain suspects without judicial review and order surveillance of suspected terrorist without a court order.
“With this sweeping new decree, Egypt’s president has taken a big step toward enshrining a permanent state of emergency as the law of the land,” Houry warned. “The government has equipped itself with even greater powers to continue stamping out its critics and opponents under its vague and ever-expanding war on terrorism.”
HRW highlighted two controversial articles of the law: first, the criminalization of reporting on terrorism in a manner that contradicts the state’s official statements. The law allows courts to temporarily ban journalists from working for violating this provision. This article was fought voraciously by the Journalists Syndicate, which led to the penalty being decreased from jail time to a LE200,000 fine.
Second, the law stipulates that anyone charged with facilitating or inciting a terrorist crime will face the same penalty as someone who actually commits a crime, even if the crime is not carried out.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry issued a report in both Arabic and English detailing the most prominent articles of the law, privately-owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper reported.
The spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, Ahmed Abu Zeid, said that the report aims at explaining the legal, political and security aspects of the law. The ministry purportedly tasked Egyptian embassies abroad with explaining the report to foreign officials and providing copies for international organizations, “to make sure the Egyptian vision reaches all concerned parties,” he added.
According to Zeid, the nature of foreign parties’ criticism of the law “shows negligence on their part to deeply analyze and attempt to understand the law and the reasons behind its issuance.” He also accused the “foreign parties” of mixing the new anti-terrorism law with laws governing political and constitutional freedoms.
Zeid asserted the importance of “respecting the independence of Egyptian decisions,” especially as “Egypt has never commented on laws issued by other countries to fight terrorism on their own lands, even ones that were considered binding to freedoms by their citizens.”
US State Department spokesperson John Kirby had expressed his administration’s concern that “some measures in Egypt’s new anti-terrorism law could have a significant detrimental impact on human rights and fundamental freedoms, including due process safeguards, freedom of association and freedom of expression.”
He added, “Defeating terrorism requires a long-term, comprehensive strategy that builds trust between the authorities and the public, including by enabling those who disagree with the government’s policies to express those views peacefully and through participation in the political process.”
However, Kirby asserted during the press briefing on Tuesday that the US continues to support Egypt in its fight against terrorism, in spite of their disagreement regarding the law.
The law, which has been in the works since 2005 when former President Hosni Mubarak first proposed it as a replacement for the long imposed state of emergency, has resurfaced repeatedly over the years, with Sisi finally enacting it through a direct decree.