Egypt’s army chief lifts emergency law on eve of revolution anniversary

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Egypt’s ruling military leader, Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, said the controversial state of emergency law will be lifted from Wednesday, on the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution.

“I have taken a decision to end the state of emergency starting on the morning of January 25, 2012,” Tantawi said in a televised address on the eve of the anniversary.

But Tantawi added that it would still apply in dealing with cases of “thuggery.” He did not spell out what that meant.

Under the Emergency Law people can be detained without trial. The law was known to be used for decades by former President Hosni Mubarak to circumvent the civilian justice system. For years, Mubarak’s regime was heavily criticized by international human rights groups for the law.

But since Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took over after Mubarak was overthrown in last year’s popular anti-regime uprising, the military council has been criticized for implementing Mubarak-era laws.

In the three decades of the former president’s autocratic rule, there were only 2,000 cases of civilians being tried by military courts. But in just ten months of SCAF taking control of the country, there have been six times that many with civilians being brought before military courts under the country’s reinstated emergency law.

The army had reinstated the law it had repealed only two months previously, following the storming of the building housing the Israeli Embassy in Cairo in September.

The law prohibited political gatherings and protests, while also imposing restrictions on the freedom of the press.

Among other laws – the penal code, associations law and the assembly law – the emergency law “limits public freedoms necessary for a democratic transition and impedes accountability for abuses by the police and the military,” the Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said in a report this week.

But Tantawi’s use of the term “thuggery” is controversial, with activists repeatedly accusing the military of using the term to stifle political dissent.

“Since Mubarak’s ouster the SCAF has been the sole authority with the power to amend or approve amendments to existing laws, and issue or approve new ones,” HRW added.

The United States praised Egypt’s decision to lift the decades-old state of emergency and hand power to the parliament as “major steps toward the normalization of political life.”

But Washington was still seeking clarification of “a little footnote” to the announcement by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi who said he would lift the emergency law except in cases of “thuggery,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

“We are seeking some clarification from the Egyptian government... what they mean by that,” Nuland said, referring to the term “thuggery.”

“But the fact that they are finally, after these many, many months of demands, taking the major step is very important for Egypt and for its future,” she said.

(Written by Eman El-shenawi)