Egypt’s hated emergency law scrapped after 30 years

Egypt’s notorious emergency law expired yesterday, ending more than 30 years of broad powers for the police to arrest and detain people.

The law was a defining and much-resented feature of ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime. In place since the assassination of president Anwar Sadat in 1981, the law was almost automatically renewed every few years, the last time in May 2010.

But the he military rulers who took over from Mubarak indicated they had no intention of renewing the law.

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“The significance of the expiration of the law is huge,” said Heba Morayef, from Human Rights Watch, adding it was the because of the symbolism attached to it as one of the main tools of oppression under Mubarak’s rule.

“This is an end of exceptional measures that provided cover to human rights abuses such as torture and enforced disappeared,” she said.

Mubarak’s regime justified the continued use of the law to crack down on terrorism and drug trafficking and to impose speedy justice on activities deemed threats to national security. But human rights activists said it gave security agencies extensive powers to detain, try without giving rights to the accused and crack down on opponents.

The lifting of the law was a key demand by the pro-democracy youth groups that engineered the uprising 15 months ago. It was partially fuelled by the abuses of police and vented anger against the symbols of the security agencies.

Days into the uprising, the police all but disappeared from the streets, leaving the country’s security largely in the hands of the military rulers. Since then, calls to reform the police have met with little action.