The Islamist-dominated Shura Council (the upper house of Egypt's parliament, currently endowed with full legislative powers) on Monday ratified new security measures at the request of President Mohamed Morsi. These include the imposition of a state of emergency in the canal governorates of Suez, Ismailia and Port Said, and the granting of Egypt's armed forces the authority to "safeguard state institutions against saboteurs and restore security."
Ahmed Fahmi, Shura Council chairman and leading official of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), said that laws pertaining to Morsi's new emergency measures were referred to the council on Sunday night, just before Morsi's television address in which he first announced the measures.
In a plenary session on Monday evening, the Shura Council approved the laws, which had been rammed through a joint closed-room session of the council's national security and legislative affairs committees on Monday morning.
In public statements, the FJP's Sobhi Saleh, deputy chairman of the council's legislative affairs committee, explained that the first piece of legislation to be discussed was an amendment of Decree 107 of 2012, which allows the armed forces to safeguard "vital state institutions" until the end of upcoming parliamentary elections.
"The law also gives the president the right to extend the powers granted to the armed forces for a further period if circumstances require him to do so," Saleh added. He went on to say that the legislative amendments did not necessarily mean that the armed forces would deploy on streets, but would rather simply be stationed in front of important state institutions.
"In this respect," argued Saleh, "the army will be granted powers exercised by police forces, while the president – upon the request of the interior minister and with the approval of the National Defence Council – can also ask the army to provide support to police in the form of armed troops."
"The point of the law is to provide public institutions with protection rather than impose emergency measures on the streets," he said. "The defence minister will be authorised to determine where the armed forces should be deployed and what their missions will be."
The text of the legislation reads: "Without disrupting its role in safeguarding the country and maintaining the integrity of its land and security, the armed forces will take charge of supporting police forces and coordinating with them to impose security and safeguard important state institutions until the end of the upcoming parliamentary elections whenever the National Defence Council deems this necessary. The minister of defence will determine where armed forces should be deployed and what their missions will be."
The law also states that army officers helping to maintain security will be granted judicial powers in accordance with the Criminal Procedures Law and the Police Law. It further states that military courts will be charged with trying those convicted of crimes of sabotage.
An explanatory note on the above legislative amendments explains that Morsi's new emergency measures were issued in light of "current circumstances" in Egypt, which necessitate providing support to the interior ministry in coordination with the armed forces to safeguard institutions until parliamentary polls can be held.
According to Sobhi, the Shura Council's joint committee had emphasised that the use of the armed forces in restoring order should not be upon the request of the president, but rather with the approval of Egypt's National Defence Council (of which the president is a member).
The council's joint committee meeting was attended by Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Omar Salem and two army generals, Ali Abdel-Mola and Sayed Shafiq.
Saleh also explained that, in accordance with Article 148 of the constitution, the Shura Council must approve President Morsi's decree (no.145 of 2013) declaring a state of emergency in Suez, Port Said and Ismailia.
Article 148 states that "after obtaining cabinet approval, the president of the republic will be entitled to declare a state of emergency as regulated by law. This declaration must be discussed by the House of Representatives [the lower house of Egypt's parliament, formally known as the People's Assembly] within the next seven days. If this declaration is issued while parliament is not in session, the House of Representatives will be reconvened at once to discuss it. If parliament is dissolved, the matter will be discussed by the Shura Council, and in that case the state of emergency should not exceed six months. It can be extended for an additional one-year period with the approval of the public in a popular referendum."
Saleh explained that, in its current legislative capacity, the Shura Council is required to approve Morsi's emergency declaration within seven days. He added that emergency measures gave army and police forces the right to detain citizens and refer them to military trials.
Morsi has said the state of emergency is necessary to restore order, especially after public utilities have recently been subject to attack. "The violent acts in the three governorates were severe; it is necessary to impose a state of emergency there," said Saleh.
For his part, the FJP's Shura Council spokesman, Essam El-Erian, said Morsi's new emergency powers were aimed at restoring calm and containing violence until parliamentary polls could be held and a new House of Representatives elected.
"The legislative amendments do not mean the armed forces will become involved in political activities," El-Erian argued. "The armed forces will merely be tasked with preserving Egypt's security at a critical stage against any aggressive operations." He also said that the exceptional measures "will not mean that citizens' freedoms will be negatively affected; the public will still have the right to organise peaceful demonstrations."
Islamist MPs, meanwhile, launched scathing attacks on the secular opposition – led by the National Salvation Front (NSF) – on Sunday morning. Islamists, mainly those of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist parties, accused the NSF of providing political cover to "saboteurs," especially those groups that have become known as 'the Black Bloc.'
One Salafist MP accused Gamal Mubarak, the son of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, of funding the 'Black Bloc' groups that have appeared in Egypt in recent days. Islamists asked for toughening laws aimed at combating riots and violence.
While the Shura Council debated the laws on Monday evening, the FJP's Saleh argued that the Morsi administration was facing a conspiracy. "There's a conspiracy against the state and its institutions; this isn't about peaceful protests, but about spreading violence, breaking prisoners out of jail and imposing a siege on Shura Council," said Saleh.
The law was rejected, however, by Ihab El-Kharat, chairman of the Shura Council's human rights committee and member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party. "There is no need for emergency measures because ordinary laws already allow the military to help the police," he said. "There is no need at the moment to give the armed forces judicial powers."
He added: "Egypt is suffering from a political crisis. There must be a political solution to this crisis rather than the imposition of draconian measures."
Emad Gad, political analyst and leading member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, told Al-Ahram Online: "The Shura Council's endorsement of Morsi's authoritarian measures gives renewed proof that the council is just an Islamist-dominated parliament, designed mainly to rubberstamp Morsi's draconian decrees and serve the interests of his Muslim Brotherhood."