Egypt’s military police and intelligence will be able to detain civilians and refer them to military tribunals under a government decree issued on Wednesday that was criticized as a dangerous move by human rights groups.
One MP described the step as an attempt to reproduce the state of emergency that was a permanent fixture of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule and expired on May 31. The law which gave security forces sweeping powers of search and arrest was seen as one of his administration’s main tools for crushing dissent.
According to the justice ministry decree, the military will continue to enjoy a broad mandate for imposing law and order until a new constitution is written - a process that is expected to last well beyond the July 1 date by which the ruling military council is due to hand power to a new president.
“The minister of justice allows commissioned and non-commissioned officers of the military police and military intelligence ... the power to legally detain non-military citizens involved in criminal activity,” said a statement from the minister of justice.
A security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the decision was designed to give soldiers the power to detain people during street disturbances.
“The decision comes in the context of continued maintenance of security by the armed forces in cooperation with civilian police, and in the absence of the emergency law and potential turbulence that could erupt after elections,” the official said.
The presidential election is due to conclude on Saturday and Sunday with a run-off between the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi and Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister.
Human rights groups said the justice ministry decree amounted to a reintroduction of emergency law through the back door. “I am very alarmed. It’s confirmation of my concern that we would continue in military law enforcement,” said Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch.
“Whenever the military is involved in arresting people, it then refers them to military tribunals, so this is basically a way of confirming the military’s right to arrest and bring people before military tribunals,” she said.
“This is a very dangerous move,” added Mohamed Zaree of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “It gives military police and the intelligence rights that are not granted to them by the law.”
The Islamist-dominated parliament had planned to pass legislation stopping the referral of civilians to military trials. Zaree said the new decision reflected their failure.
Amr Hamzawy, a liberal member of parliament, tweeted that the decision “reproduces the state of emergency law in a different form and threatens the rule of law.”
The military and state security forces have drawn up joint security plans ahead of the vote, which could trigger mass protests across the country, a security source in the Interior Ministry said.
The current government, led by Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri, was appointed by the military council in November. It is due to step down once the new president takes office.