Egypt’s military rulers late Tuesday assured U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta they will lift a controversial emergency law but gave no sign they will do so before parliamentary elections next month, U.S. officials said.
In a visit to Cairo on Tuesday, Panetta renewed Washington’s appeal to scrap the security law and said he was hopeful Egypt’s interim military government will eventually take that step.
The emergency law, which allows arrests without charges and restricts the rights of defendants in special courts, was seen as a symbol of repression under former president Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
Egyptian leaders told the Pentagon chief that “they are seriously looking at the first opportunity” to rescind the law, Panetta told a news conference after meeting the country’s military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, according to AFP.
But in talks with the defense secretary, the Egyptians made no commitment to do so before a series of elections starting on November 28 that will usher in a civilian-led government.
Instead, the Egyptian officials told the Americans that last month’s siege of the Israeli embassy served as an example of why the law is still needed to maintain order in a time of turmoil following ex-president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.
“We came away reassured that they understand the importance of the issue, even though they suggested the siege of the Israeli embassy and the surrounding events from their point of view renewed the need for this,” said a senior U.S. defense official.
Emergency law still in effect
The U.S. administration, along with activists in Egypt and human rights groups, has voiced concern that “having the emergency law still in effect would cast a shadow over the election process,” the official told reporters.
“We’re hopeful that they will do so before the parliamentary elections” in November, the defense official added.
In remarks published on Tuesday before Panetta arrived, Tantawi, who took charge when a popular uprising forced out Mubarak in February, said the state of emergency would end “as soon as possible.”
However, he added that the emergency law, which the military widened in scope last month after protesters ransacked the Israeli embassy and clashed with police, would be lifted “on condition that the security situation stabilizes.”
The law -- which has been continuously in place since Islamists assassinated president Anwar Sadat in 1981 -- had been regularly extended under Mubarak’s rule.
At the press conference with Panetta, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson said the Egyptian leadership appeared not to have made a decision yet on the timing of lifting the state of emergency.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week she hoped Egypt would cancel the emergency law well before June next year when the powers granted by the Mubarak-era parliament run out.
Israel spy case
Panetta, meanwhile, called on Egypt to release a U.S.-Israeli dual national who was detained in June on charges of spying for Israel, according to Reuters.
Panetta’s visit to the Arab world’s most populous country followed speculation by Egyptian and Israeli media over the possible release of Ilan Grapel.
Israel has denied Grapel is a spy.
“We have expressed concern about his treatment and have urged that ultimately he be released. And we raised that issue today ... in discussions,” Panetta told reporters.
“We’re confident that ultimately the Egyptian government will deal with that fairly,” he said, adding he was not involved in direct negotiations over Grapel.
Egyptian security also denied there were any negotiations over the release of the 27-year-old.