Egypt Lets 'Emergency Law' Expire; Another Step Toward Democracy?

Egypt's interim military government has let expire a 31-year-old emergency law that once allowed security forces to arrest and detain civilians without charge, as was done during the height of last year's Arab Spring uprisings that saw thousands of protesters detained and some reportedly go missing.

"This is huge," human rights activist Hossam Bahgat told Israeli news site Haaretz.

"What is really crucial is the message. The security forces operated under a culture that told them they were constantly above the law. Now they need to abide by the existing legislation and they won't enjoy any extralegal powers," he added. Bahgat has campaigned heavily for several years to have the law lifted.

The legislation was enacted after former President Anwar Sadat's 1981 assassination and allowed security officials to detain and imprison civilians indefinitely without charge, regardless of court papers demanding their release.

Countless numbers of Egyptians reportedly have been arrested without significant reason and disappeared in Egyptian prison due to this law. The Arab Spring protests of Feb. 2011 resulted in thousands of arrests and the indefinite detention of several protesters.

Observers argue that the end of the emergency law could also be seen as a win for Coptic Christians in the country, who often feel discriminated against because they are a minority among Egypt's population, 90 percent of whom practice Islam.

Kiri Kankhwende, press officer for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a religious human rights organization, told The Christian Post that the result of the law's expiration goes far beyond Coptic Christians, affecting all Egypting citizens.

"[The emergency law] has implications for all Egyptian citizens because arrests and detentions affected all who were and are deemed to be a threat or problematic by the government. This is not a Christian issue; it's a national one. The emergency laws had no effect on Christians expressing their beliefs; it was not created for that purpose. It was created to maintain control on society," Kankhwende said.

"Moreover Christianity was never underground or illegal. The expression of Christian faith openly was only problematic for those who have converted from Islam, and remains so regardless of whether the emergency law has expired or not," she added.

The military government, which has maintained control of the country since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak last February, has said it has no intention of renewing the emergency law, yet plans to stay in power until a new government leader is elected and put in place.

Currently, Egypt is carrying out its first ever democratic presidential election, with the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi and former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq competing neck-and-neck for the win.

Although the expiration of the emergency law is a step toward democracy, Kanhwende argues that the real evidence of progress lies in the outcome of the current presidential elections.

"It could be argued that elections, however imperfect, marked the embryonic stages of democracy, in which case, this predates the expiry of [the emergency law]. However, we still await the ending of interim military rule and a full transition to an elected government," said Kankhwende.

"The outcome of the presidential elections and outworking of a new regime will tell us how far down the road of democracy Egypt has traveled, and at what pace," she added.

The final runoff election for the presidency will occur on June 16-17, and marks the final phase of democratic transition.