LEFT: A journalist shouts slogans against the Interior Ministry during a protest against the detention of an Egyptian photojournalist in Cairo, Aug. 17, 2015. (photo by REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
CAIRO — While the ink on Egypt’s new counterterrorism law was still drying, security forces had already begun rounding up suspects to prosecute with it. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued the law Aug. 15. Exactly one week later, on Aug. 22, police in the southern governorate of Sohag arrested three men for allegedly posting Islamic State propaganda on Facebook.
The men, the youngest of whom is 16, face charges of propagating jihadist ideology and communicating with a terrorist network, crimes punishable by 10 years in prison at best — and the death penalty at worst — under Article 12 of the new law.
Two days later, the Interior Ministry announced that it had apprehended another two alleged terrorists in Alexandria. Abdullah and Karim, both 18, were arrested Aug. 24 for curating the “Ultras Freedom Eagles” Facebook page. According to a statement published Aug. 24 by the Interior Ministry, the Facebook page — referred to in the statement as a Brotherhood affiliate — called for violating the protest law and revolting against state institutions, the police and the military.
The two students face charges of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood (which the Egyptian government designated a terrorist organization in 2013), participating in illegal demonstrations and attacking security forces. These are all crimes punishable with life in prison or a death sentence, Fatma Serag, director of the Legal Unit for the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression, told Al-Monitor.
“We’re very keen on getting involved in these two cases,” Serag said. “Our best information — in reference to government statement and media reports — indicates that they’re likely to face life in prison or the death penalty.”
However, security forces have revealed little information about either case — not even the defendants’ full names — making it tedious and time-consuming for lawyers to find them in court dockets. AFTE is particularly eager to take on a case being prosecuted under the counterterrorism law, as this is their only avenue for challenging the new piece of legislation.
“The only entity that has the authority to repeal the law at this time is the Supreme Constitutional Court,” Serag said. “And the only way for this to happen is if, in a case where the law is being applied, the [defense] lawyer claims the law to be unconstitutional and appeals for the case to go to the Constitutional Court.”
This latest piece of legislation is one of nearly 200 laws Sisi has issued through presidential decree since his election in June 2014, according to Mai el-Sedany, a nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
Other laws issued in the absence of an elected parliament include the “terrorist entities law,” the “protest law” and a number of laws restricting the freedoms of universities. While the president appointed a Legislative Reform Committee in June 2014 to review and edit these draft laws, no one is under any illusions: These pieces of legislation are the “product of presidential authority alone,” Sedany wrote on the Tahrir institute's website.
The first round of parliamentary voting is now set for Oct. 26, giving parties less than two months to cobble together their candidates, prepare their platforms and inform the electorate of them.
“Because of this and the fact that government institutions are engaged in a ‘war on terror,’ any parliament that is elected today is unlikely to be a revolutionary or rogue parliament by any standard and is likely to interpret its authority in a more constrained and limited manner,” Sedany told Al-Monitor.
When the long-awaited parliament finally does convene, it then has 15 days to review every one of the president’s decrees, according to Article 156 of the Egyptian Constitution. It is highly unlikely, if not flat out impossible, that this task will be completed, according to Sedany.
“In previous sessions, the parliament has taken that long to set forth its bylaws and appoint its head,” Sedany explained. “At best, the parliament would begin to review a handful of the laws. … Considering how pervasive the ‘war on terror’ rhetoric is, however, I doubt that any parliament would dare allow this particular law and related legislation to be revoked.”
This is a deeply frustrating prospect for Serag. Civil society groups are greatly affected by such legislation, yet they have no say in drafting it and have no clear path forward to fight it, she said.
AFTE is just one of dozens of local and international rights groups that have decried the law as draconian, unconstitutional and largely unhelpful in the fight against terror. “This law has absolutely no effect on the fight against terrorism,” Serag said. “It won’t be effective because it is just a ‘copy-paste’ of other existing laws.”
According to Sedany, the significance of the law lies in the overall message it delivers, more than the actual crimes and penalties outlined in it. “What the new law does is combine all of these measures into one centralized location,” Sedany said. “It also sets a national tone that security is more important than human rights. And that is what is most worrisome of all.”
The law has received widespread criticism ever since the Cabinet released a first draft of it in July. Among the draft’s most vehement critics were journalists, who, under the proposed law, could face prison time for contradicting official state figures in their reports. The law was later amended to reduce the penalty for reporting “false news” to a mere $64,000 fine — still widely considered an affront to the freedom of the press. The Egyptian Journalists Syndicate continues to call for that aspect of the law to be amended.
Other contentious elements of the law include provisions that reduce police oversight, expand pretrial detention periods and allow the monitoring of private phone conversations and social media interactions, Sedany further noted.
Since the law was passed two weeks ago, security forces have continued to take advantage of its provisions on “publishing false news” and “communicating with terrorist networks” to detain citizens for posts they have made on Facebook. A father and his daughter were arrested Aug. 28 for running the “Zoom News” Facebook page (no longer available), which allegedly called for acts of violence against the state and undermines national security. Police have also accused the pair of being members of the Brotherhood and 16 other “secret societies.”
Amr Kaleny, the media officer for the Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms, told Al-Monitor that to the center’s knowledge, based on information from lawyers either directly involved or following the cases, the state is currently holding a total of 21 people as a result of their activities on Facebook.
Serag worries that if this law is not revised, it could lead to the end of Egypt’s once-vibrant civil society. “We’re only going to see more arrests, more sham trials, more death penalties, the closing of public spaces and the restricting of the freedom of information,” Serag said. She paused and shook her head. “This law could even be applied to us.”