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Egypt's military lifts emergency law – with one big loophole

On the eve of the Egyptian revolution anniversary, military leader Hussein Tantawi said the hated emergency law – a key tool of repression – would be lifted except in cases of 'thuggery.'

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Head of Egypt's ruling military council Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi speaks during a televised address in Cairo, in this still image taken from video Tuesday. Tantawi said on Tuesday the state of emergency law would be lifted except in cases of 'thuggery.'

Egypt TV via Reuters/Reuters

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Egypt's military ruler announced yesterday that he would lift Egypt’s hated emergency law – except in cases of "thuggery," which rights activists say leaves a loophole for police to continue to use exceptional powers to arrest and detain civilians without cause.

Ending the three-decade-long state of emergency that was a tool of repression for former President Hosni Mubarak was a main demand of the uprising that began a year ago today and swept him from power just 18 days later. It gives police broad powers to arrest and indefinitely detain without warrants, makes gatherings illegal, and allows civilians to be tried in exceptional courts. It was often used to arrest and detain members and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood is now the single most powerful political force in Egypt, and controls a plurality of seats in the new parliament. But the Islamist movement has signaled that it will not confront the military on this issue, with one leader saying today that martial law is still necessary to maintain law and order in Egypt's post-Mubarak transition.

Just what is 'thuggery'?

Rights activists said that Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi's announcement yesterday echoed Mubarak’s declaration in 2010 that the emergency law would only be applied in cases of terrorism and drug trafficking. That promise was routinely violated, as police continued to use the law to arrest and detain anyone it chose.

“For us the state of emergency has not been lifted,” says Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “Police were not deprived of wide-ranging powers to stop, search, and detain anyone without a judicial warrant. On the ground, this will mean very little.”  

He pointed out that “thuggery” is a vague and broad term that was not defined by Tantawi. The term has been used repeatedly by the military over the past year to discredit political protesters and activists.

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