After a series of stunning militant attacks, Egypt’s government is pushing through a controversial new anti-terrorism draft bill that would set up special terrorism courts, shorten the appeals process, give police greater powers of arrest and imprison journalists who report information on attacks that differs from the official government line.
The draft raised concerns that officials are taking advantage of heightened public shock at last week’s audacious attacks to effectively enshrine into law the notorious special emergency laws which were in place for decades until they were lifted following the 2011 ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Rather than reviewing security policies since the attacks, officials have largely been focusing blame on the media for allegedly demoralizing troops and on the slowness of the courts.
The 55-article bill has not been officially made public but was leaked to the Egyptian press over the weekend. A judicial official who vetted the draft confirmed its contents to The Associated Press on Monday. The bill is currently in a review process, leaving it unclear when it will be issued or whether changes could be made. Since Egypt has not had parliament for more than two years, laws are issued by the president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, after going through the Cabinet. In the absence of parliament, any debate is largely through media or behind closed doors.
The leaked copy of the bill brought an outcry and demands for changes in the draft from Egypt’s journalists union and from senior judges. “The disaster is that now they have decided to punish those who are carrying the news and not those responsible for the catastrophes,” Khaled Balshi, of the Press Syndicate, told the AP. The government “seeks a press that fits it, a la North Korea.” The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has said that there are at least 18 journalists behind bars in Egypt and accusing the government of using the pretext of national security to crackdown on freedoms.
“Imposing jail time for publishing news about any topic, including government’s account of public events, contradicts Egypt’s own constitution and defies any standard of free press. Journalists’ basic function in any democratic society is to vet government behavior and Egypt is not an exception,” Sherif Mansour of CPJ wrote to AP in an email. The bill “pushes further the government ability to, and its practice of, crushing critical and independent voices inside the country.”