Panetta presses Egypt to lift emergency law, to no avail
AFP, Wednesday 5 Oct 2011
Even though Egypt's military rulers promised visiting US Defence Secretary they will lift emergency law, they gave no timetable as to when exactly this is to take place

Egypt's military rulers on Tuesday assured US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta they will lift a controversial emergency law but gave no sign they will do so before parliamentary elections next month, US officials said.

In a visit to Cairo on Tuesday, Panetta renewed Washington's appeal to scrap the security law and said he was hopeful Egypt's interim military government will eventually take that step.

The emergency law, which allows arrests without charges and restricts the rights of defendants in special courts, was seen as a symbol of repression under former president Hosni Mubarak's regime.

Egyptian leaders told the Pentagon chief that "they are seriously looking at the first opportunity" to rescind the law, Panetta told a news conference after meeting the country's military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.

But in talks with the defence secretary, the Egyptians made no commitment to do so before a series of elections starting on November 28 that will usher in a civilian-led government.

Instead, the Egyptian officials told the Americans that last month's siege of the Israeli embassy served as an example of why the law is still needed to maintain order in a time of turmoil following ex-president Hosni Mubarak's ouster.

"We came away reassured that they understand the importance of the issue, even though they suggested the siege of the Israeli embassy and the surrounding events from their point of view renewed the need for this," said a senior US defence official.

The US administration, along with activists in Egypt and human rights groups, has voiced concern that "having the emergency law still in effect would cast a shadow over the election process," the official told reporters.

"We're hopeful that they will do so before the parliamentary elections" in November, the defence official added.

In remarks published on Tuesday before Panetta arrived, Tantawi, who took charge when a popular uprising forced out Mubarak in February, said the state of emergency would end "as soon as possible."

However, he added that the emergency law, which the military widened in scope last month after protesters ransacked the Israeli embassy and clashed with police, would be lifted "on condition that the security situation stabilises."

The law -- which has been continuously in place since Islamists assassinated president Anwar Sadat in 1981 -- had been regularly extended under Mubarak's rule.

At the press conference with Panetta, US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson said the Egyptian leadership appeared not to have made a decision yet on the timing of lifting the state of emergency.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week she hoped Egypt would cancel the emergency law well before June next year when the powers granted by the Mubarak-era parliament run out.