Egypt’s new counterterrorism law increases authorities’ power to impose heavy sentences, including the death penalty, for crimes under a definition of terrorism that is so broadly worded it could encompass civil disobedience. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi enacted the law on August 15, 2015.
The new law also gives prosecutors greater power to detain suspects without judicial review and order wide-ranging and potentially indefinite surveillance of terrorist suspects without a court order.
“With this sweeping new decree, Egypt’s president has taken a big step toward enshrining a permanent state of emergency as the law of the land,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “The government has equipped itself with even greater powers to continue stamping out its critics and opponents under its vague and ever-expanding war on terrorism.”
The law makes it a crime to publish or promote news about terrorism if it contradicts the Defense Ministry’s official statements and would allow the courts to temporarily ban journalists from practicing their profession for doing so. It also makes anyone judged to have facilitated, incited, or agreed to a vaguely defined terrorist crime – whether in public or in private – liable for the same penalty that they would receive if they had committed that crime, even if the crime does not occur. The law eliminates any time limit for bringing terrorism prosecutions.
Egypt has had no lower house of parliament, which drafts laws, since it was dissolved by court order in 2012. In its absence, al-Sisi has issued at least 175 laws and decrees since taking office in June 2014. The government has repeatedly postponed elections for a new parliament. By law, the new parliament will have only 15 days after its first session to review and amend all legislation passed in its absence before that legislation becomes final.
The government revived its discussion of a draft counterterrorism law – which had been proposed following the 2013 removal of former President Mohamed Morsy by the military – after the assassination of Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat on June 29, 2015, in a Cairo car bombing. In a speech at Barakat’s funeral on June 30, al-Sisi said that “the prompt hand of justice is tied by the laws, and we can’t wait for that,” and pledged to amend Egypt’s laws “to implement the law and justice in the fastest possible time.”
Since Morsy’s overthrow, the government has focused its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsy’s former organization, arresting thousands of its members, while courts have sentenced hundreds to death. On the day of Barakat’s funeral, Egypt’s State Information Service blamed the Brotherhood for his killing – which the Brotherhood called “reprehensible” – without presenting any evidence.
Egypt’s cabinet labeled the Brotherhood a terrorist group in December 2013 and April 2014. Cairo’s Court of Urgent Appeals, normally meant to handle temporary civil injunctions, designated the Brotherhood a terrorist group in February 2014, but that ruling remains on appeal and legal analysts have said that the court likely exceeded its jurisdiction. No competent court in Egypt has designated the Brotherhood a terrorist group, though prosecutors have filed thousands of cases accusing Brotherhood members of terrorism or membership in a terrorist group.
“Barakat’s assassination and the ongoing conflict in the Sinai Peninsula show that the Egyptian government faces a serious and deadly insurgency,” Houry said. “But eroding basic rights, curtailing dissent, and using ‘terrorism’ as a cudgel against opponents is no way to win the battle for hearts and minds.”