Is the anti-terrorism law sufficient in Egypt?

Mohamed Shuman
Monday 28 Sep 2015

Egypt's recently issued anti-terrorism law raises a number of problems regarding the balance between combating terrorism and respecting public freedoms and human rights

Does expanding the mandate of the executive authority and security bodies guarantee eradicating terrorism, or does it violate the lives of individuals and their legal rights, thus feeding a new grievance discourse that might be used by the terrorist movement for its benefit?

These problems appeared in all international experiences that resorted to issuing anti-terrorism laws, the most famous being the American experience post-9/11, which faced criticisms and witnessed several revisions, albeit years after applying the new laws.

It seems that the Egyptian case does not differ in general from this context of anti-terrorism law, which starts with greeting the law with support and enthusiasm as a lawful means and without a substitute in fighting terrorism, and then is changed with some revisions emerging that triumph public and private freedoms.

It can be said that the general context in which the law was issued in Egypt and the debate surrounding it is still in the enthusiastic stage, considering it a necessary means for protecting the homeland. Supporting it and defending it is a sign of patriotism.

In this context, tworried debate and discussion was confined to the circles of the elite and journalists, where some see that the law gave the executive and security bodies powers exceeding what was stated in the 2014 Constitution regarding the rights and guarantees of press freedom, freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful demonstration and political action.

On the other side, the majority believe that Egypt is engaged in a fierce battle against terrorism that is linked to foreign conspiracies. Thus, there is a necessity to issuing this law that does not conflict with the constitution and human rights.

However, the kind and level of the discussion, and the arguments and proofs used, raise observations concerning the law and the climate in which its text was written, and the acceptance of it by the majority of Egyptians.

The most important of these observations are: first, the agreement between the law's proponents and opponents on the necessity of resisting terrorism. The difference lies in the tools and means used in the war on terrorism, and guarantees of human rights, public freedoms and respecting the constitution. The law's proponents are adamant in their belief that the priority should be given to security solutions and deterrent legal measures, while opponents believe that vanquishing terrorism requires a wide-ranging package of security and political measures, reforming the state apparatus, achieving social justice and changing education curricula, as well as renovating religious discourse.

The law's opponents fear that it threatens public freedoms and ingrains a cultural and political climate that is antagonistic to diversity, freedom of opinion and expression, and respect for the constitution. Thus, it helps in the creation of fertile grounds for intellectual extremism and terrorism.

Lessons of history in the Arab world assert two things. First, the emergence and growth of terrorist groups has been linked to the domination of one opinion and the absence of intellectual and political plurality. Second, giving priority to security considerations, discarding dialogue and politics and violating freedoms are advantageous to terrorism. This approach supports the propagandist discourse of terrorists and begets more hatred, and terrorism. 

Second, the debate and discussions between the law's proponents and opponents and the kind of arguments and recriminations used revealed the new intellectual and cultural climate that can support, in an indirect way, extremism and terrorism. This discussion was characterised by severe polarisation and an absence of democratic values, respect for the opinions of others, and recrimination.

Supporters of the law went as far as casting doubt on the patriotism of opponents, inferring that they support terrorism, while opponents stressed the return of tyranny and the tightened security grip.

On the other hand, media and popular attention declined regarding follow up debates and discussions about the law, as a result of the widespread propagation of it as the best solution for eradicating terrorism. From this point onwards, the law gained wide support and opponents seemed as if they were defending the continuance of terrorism and justifying the fall of innocent victims from the military, the police and the people.

Within this context, it is difficult for talk about freedoms and human rights to receive popular acceptance. It must be said that such a law was difficult to pass during the rule of presidents Hosni Mubarak or Mohamed Morsi. It was even difficult to pass two years ago.

However, the social and psychological climate of Egypt has changed and the fear of terrorism and foreign conspiracy facilitated the passing of the law without strong opposition or popular interest in following the arguments of those opposing it, for Egypt is said to be living in a state of war.

Third, one of the ironies is that foreign criticisms from some Western countries and international human rights organisations was used as evidence of an attempt by Western capitals to interfere in Egypt's internal affairs, and of the existence of a foreign plot against Egypt that is using the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorist groups to undermine stability and create a state of chaos similar to that in Libya and Syria.

In this context, some human rights activists opposing the law have been accused of being tools of this plot. Their ideas and reservations about some articles in the law were not discussed, though they conflict with some articles in the constitution, public law and international conventions that Egypt has signed.

Fourth, public debate discarded most of the law's articles and concentrated on Article 35 that threatens the freedom of journalistic work, establishing "a fine which is not less than LE200,000 (approximately $25,000) and does not exceed LE500,000 (approximately $64,000)" to be "imposed on everyone who deliberately used any form of means whether publishing, broadcasting, projecting or propagating untrue news or statements regarding terrorist activities that occurred inside the country or operations linked to combating it in a way that contradicts official statements issued by the Ministry of Defence." The article adds: "In all cases the court has the right to prohibit the convicted from practising his profession for a period that does not exceed a year if it saw that the crime constitutes an infringement of the principles of his profession."

The government has amended this article in the light of the Press Syndicate's criticisms where the penalties stipulated imprisonment for two years, which runs in conflict with Article 71 of the 2014 Constitution that prohibits imprisonment for publishing offences except in the cases of inciting violence, discrimination among citizens and slander.

However, there are some that see that Article 35 as unconstitutional because it leads to imprisoning journalists who cannot pay the fine. In addition, it grants the government the right to deprive the journalist of practising his profession for a year, which is a right of the Press Syndicate.

Fifth, what is astonishing is that a wide section of journalists support Article 35 in spite of the restrictions it imposes on the freedom of media work and on the possibility of making an exclusive news story. For this article will dissuade Egyptian media from publishing news about terrorist attacks before the release of official statements, while Arab and foreign media will have the opportunity to publish freely because Egyptian anti-terrorism laws are not applicable to them.

This is considered seceding from a large section of journalists their professional rights, and is tied to the public climate in Egypt that focuses on fighting terrorism as a top national priority that precedes any other rights or freedoms.

This comes in the light of public mobilising that is reminiscent of what happened in the United States post-9/11 when the US Congress hastily agreed on the Patriot Act.

This law was issued specifically to facilitate the investigation procedures and tools necessary for combating terrorism. However, the irony is that most of the US revisions assert the limited effect of applying this law in combating terrorism.

Sixth, the government's negligence to present important laws for societal debate, and respond to its results (such as the anti-terrorism law, the parliamentary elections law and civil service law) causes problems and criticisms regarding the legislation process in light of the absence of parliament and the way of achieving a willing acceptance of laws.

Hence, the government and the Legislative Reform Committee must revise the way of drafting and imposing new laws. This was the way of governments before the revolution. There must be commitment to present every new law for societal debate in which trade unions, syndicates, civil society organisations, universities and citizens participate, and that media follow up on, because this debate is the main guarantee of citizens' participation in the legislative process.

It also ensures avoiding mistakes in drafting laws, their application and the probabilities of being in conflict with the constitution or public laws.

Finally, despite the validity of the previous observations, the question presents itself: Will the anti-terrorism law succeed in eradicating terrorism, or does the battle against terrorism need more than security and legal tools? Confronting terrorism needs a comprehensive strategy including political, developmental, security, legal and educational solutions, because all the solutions applied in the last two years lacked integration.

Thus, terrorism in Sinai and the Nile Delta was not eradicated, despite all the sacrifices and efforts of the military and the police, which succeeded in the curtailment of terrorist operations and limiting the spread of terrorism.

Meanwhile, terrorist attacks with revenge or suicidal dimensions emerged, which are still negatively affecting the flow of tourism and foreign investment.

The writer is dean of the Faculty of Communication and Mass Media at the British University in Egypt (BUE).

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