At the beginning of January, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi declared a three-month extension of a country-wide state of emergency that has been in effect since April 2017 in response to bombings at two Coptic churches. The extension was unremarkable in many ways. Egypt has existed under conditions of a de facto or de jure state of emergency for the vast majority of its existence as an independent state. But this routine renewal betrays a deeply entrenched regime of rule by extraordinary powers, which are critically important in contextualizing both the protests that led to Egypt’s 2011 revolution and the political regression that has taken place since.
In the lead up to the 2011 revolution, Egypt had existed in a state of emergency for 30 years under President Hosni Mubarak. This intractable emergency rule was made possible under the Emergency Law 162 of 1958 and constitutional articles that granted the president emergency powers, but it can hardly be attributed narrowly to these explicit emergency provisions. The state of emergency is a legal designation that derives from a constellation of laws – constitutional articles, amendments, decrees and legislation – that collectively grant the executive far-reaching discretionary powers and restrict civil liberties, sanction censorship, suspend habeas corpus, expand police and military jurisdiction, and blur the lines between civilian and military legal processes.
The popular fixation on social media activism in the 2011 Egyptian revolution has often obscured the long legacy of dissent, protest and activism demanding greater political freedoms before the so-called Arab Spring. And opposition to the Emergency Law and emergency rule was a key crucible of anti-regime sentiment and mobilization. Protesting the emergency became an important vehicle and training opportunity for activism in spaces where political participation was strictly curtailed. Egypt’s religious and secular opposition targeted the Emergency Law as the primary impediment to political participation. In the early 2000s the Muslim Brotherhood actively opposed attempts to renew the law from within the People’s Assembly (although the party was banned, it gained seats in parliament by running candidates as independents). On the day of a crucial renewal vote in 2006, they wore black sashes that read “no to emergency.”
Subsequent renewals were also met with opposition. Activists staged protests in 2008 and 2010. By 2010, Kefaya (“Enough” in Arabic), a grassroots opposition group widely heralded as a predecessor to many 2011 revolutionary movements, and Kulna Khaled Said (“We Are All Khaled Said”), which gained notoriety in 2011 for promulgating the January 25th protest date on its popular Facebook page, were involved in coordinating demonstrations and “silent stands” against the Emergency Law. Online organizing had become a key feature of these oppositional movements – cultivating the deep roots of cyberactivism that were to blossom during the Arab Spring.
After the revolution, the country’s tumultuous transition brought some changes to the legal framework that justified the emergency state, but the emergency practices of the deep (military and police) state arguably intensified. The emergency expired for the first time in three decades in May 2012, presenting an unprecedented opportunity for political opening. The demands of Egypt’s revolutionaries were diverse, but opposition to emergency rule remained fervent. The newest incarnation was the digitally savvy #NoMilTrials movement, which emerged in 2011 to protest torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, and military trials for civilians – all longstanding hallmarks of Egypt’s emergency rule. Other notable revolutionary groups, including the April 6th Youth, also participated in protests against the emergency law in the aftermath of the revolution.
But the post-revolution period unmistakably demonstrated how emergency rule is enabled by a dense tangle of extrajudicial powers that are exercised without official declarations of emergency. Both of Egypt’s post-revolution constitutions (in 2012 and 2014) included greater restrictions on the president’s emergency powers, including a time limit and requirements to seek approval from parliament. These constitutional revisions reflected a recognition – however perfunctory – of the longstanding popular rejection of emergency rule. But they did not mitigate the effects of the state’s coercive power. Crackdowns on ongoing protests resulted in arbitrary arrests, torture, and military trials for civilians, both with and without official declarations of states of emergency. After 2011, Egypt witnessed a democratic election, a military coup, countless violent altercations between security services and protesters, a state of emergency and curfew, and new, aggressive anti-protest and anti-NGO laws.
Since the election of President Sisi in 2014, emergency rule has expanded both legislatively and by presidential decree, beyond the specific provisions of constitutional emergency powers or the Emergency Law. Thousands of civilians have been detained without trial or tried in military courts. In light of the escalating repression in the country over the past several years, the official declaration of a state of emergency in April 2017 and its recent renewal in January are less a legal maneuver for greater executive flexibility than they are a distinct political statement. The message to Egyptians is: this is the new old normal. This latest renewal of the state of emergency may be unremarkable in purely procedural terms, but it betrays an uncomfortable reality – that the counter-revolution is, and always has been, the rule of law.