Egypt's government on Tuesday extended the country's controversial emergency law for another two years, saying it would limit its use, a promise dismissed by human rights activists who warned the law would continue to be used to suppress dissent.
The emergency law, in place since the 1981 assassination of then-President Anwar Sadat by Islamic militants, gives police broad powers of arrest and allows indefinite detention without charge. Democracy advocates and human rights groups have long said the law is used to silence critics and ensure the ruling party's lock on power in this top Mideast ally of the United States, pointing to the arrest of bloggers, political activists and others.
More than 100 opposition lawmakers and activists protested Tuesday outside parliament demanding lawmakers reject any extension of the law. But parliament, which is dominated by ruling party members, approved the government's request that the law be kept in place until May 31, 2012, the state news agency reported.
Faced with criticism - including from Washington - the government on Tuesday depicted the new extension as an important change to the law. It comes ahead of parliamentary elections due later this year and presidential elections set for 2011.
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Moufid Shehab told reporters that the government is "for the first time" committing to limit its use to cases involving terrorism and the drug trade.
He acknowledged that in the past, the law had been applied "in a general fashion" to other types of cases. The admission was unusual, since the government has long insisted that the emergency law was only used in terrorism or drug cases.
'Not enough guarantees'
A few of the powers given to police would be abolished, including the power to censure or close media and publications and to monitor communications, Shehab said. Police would still be able to hold suspects without charge in terror and drug cases, he said, though he underlined that detentions are subject to review by special courts.
In many cases, however, detainees have been held despite court orders, and rights groups said there is no accountability in arrests.
Activists said Tuesday the new promises gave little guarantee of change.
"These statements are similar to those they have been giving for years, which we know are contrary to the truth," said Soha Abdelati, of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. "People are arrested for all sorts of reasons. We don't feel these new statements provide any safety blanket."
"People have been arrested under the emergency law for a range of issues, including freedom of speech and cases of freedom of religion," Abdelati told The Associated Press. "It's common for the Interior Ministry to abuse all its privileges under the emergency law, so as long as the law is applied, there are not enough guarantees that abuses won't take place."
A number of bloggers have been detained under the emergency law, including Hany Nazeer, a Christian arrested in 2008 after posting an item seen as insulting to Islam, and Mosaad Suleiman Hassan, an activist who wrote about discrimination against Bedouin in the Sinai Peninsula, jailed since 2007.
Shehab said anyone wrongly detained can appeal against their detention and if the court finds they are not connected to a terror or drug case, they will be freed.
The emergency law has been renewed repeatedly by parliament since 1981.
Shehab said its extension was necessary because of continued terrorism threats against Egypt, pointing to bombings against tourist resorts in the Sinai in the 2000s, weapons smuggling across the Egypt-Gaza border and, in particular, a recent case in which 26 men were convicted of spying for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and plotting attacks in Egypt.
In 2007, a constitutional amendment called for the emergency law to be replaced by a specific counterterrorism law. Shehab said lawmakers have been working on drawing up a bill since, but were trying to strike a balance between preserving rights and "the needs of security."