Endless Emergency

At the end of April, Egypt’s government extended the country’s “state of emergency” for another two years, meaning the country will end up living under special emergency laws for at least 27 straight years. That’s a long time to be in crisis, and like a patient in a coma — whose relatives and doctors have long ago got over feeling anxious, and now only pay attention if the heartbeat stops — the country has come to experience emergency as the norm, the status quo. There’s a whole generation of Egyptians who’ve known nothing else.

In fact, few Egyptians would argue that their life is in some sense one long emergency — a desperate scramble from one (usually financial) problem to another. But education, unemployment or corruption, the lack of hospital beds or jobs, is not what the emergency laws were designed to fight. In theory, they’re needed to contain terrorism. In practice, they come in handy to put opposition in its place.

Emergency laws are basically martial laws. They date straight back to the British occupation of Egypt, and have been in effect for most of the 20th century. Egypt’s current president, Hosni Mubarak, who came into power in 1981 when his predecessor was assassinated by Islamic extremists, hasn’t governed Egypt a day without these laws firmly in place. And one can see why: they’re so useful. They’re a trump card that allows the authorities to ignore a whole raft of constitutional rights, such as freedom of expression and assembly, the right to privacy, and the right to due process.

Under emergency rule, any gathering of more then five people can be considered an illegal meeting, so universities and political parties have to get the permission of security forces to hold rallies or conferences. Distributing leaflets may be a crime, and the president has the power to ban publications and shut down newspapers. The security forces can tap phones and confiscate belongings without warrants; Egypt is dotted with roadblocks and checkpoints at which drivers are questioned and searched at an officer’s whim.

Most importantly, under emergency law people can be made to disappear. They can be detained indefinitely, without charges, and often without contact with their lawyers or families. Egyptian human rights groups estimate there are 10,000 to 15,000 Egyptians currently being detained without charges. Many of them were rounded up after one terrorist attack or another — although that hasn’t stopped the bombs from continuing to go off. And while being held incommunicado, prisoners can be abused and tortured with virtual impunity.

The strange thing about Egypt is what a peaceful, cheerful police state it is. The millions milling through Cairo’s streets do not seem cautious, cowed or paranoid. In the last few years, more and more columnists have been writing fiery editorials, activists are hold demonstrations, and taxi drivers, when they lose their temper, call the president “a son of a dog”.

And yet, as Maria Golia, one of Egypt’s most articulate observers noted recently in a column in the Daily Star emergency law has seeped into Egyptian society like a poison (“The unshakeable shadow of Egypt’s Emergency Law” http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=10&categ_id=5&article_id=24017, 28 April 06). It has eroded Egyptians’ communal spirit, deadened the peoples’ initiative, and snuffed out their courage. No one wants to get involved in any kind of scene at which the police might show up. Egyptians, by and large, value peacefulness and stability, and have respect for authority. But emergency law has turned them into a country of that worst kind of people: people who “don’t want to get into trouble”.

While criticism of the president can be heard more and more often, the authorities still know how to keep it in check. By picking on just the right number of people, not too few and not too many, by keeping punishment fearful and arbitrary but rare enough, then most Egyptians can still think of it as something that happens to someone else. The heavy hand of the government passes quickly and mercifully past them, and lands on a stranger, perhaps someone who may have “deserved it”.

The day after emergency rule was extended, some of Cairo’s democracy activists tried to hold a street protest. Almost 50 activists had been beaten and detained during demonstrations just the week before (a lot of them ended up getting slapped with familiar emergency law charges such as “insulting the president” and “disrupting public security”). The demonstrators against emergency rule were swept off the street, chased into a building ,and reduced to shouting their slogans from a balcony, while troops blocked the entrance.

On the street below stood squadrons of young, underfed central security troops. They are the poorest of Egypt’s poor; country boys drafted, efficiently brutalized, and turned into the regime’s mindless muscle. There were also many clusters of beltagiya (“thugs”). These are gangs of poor young men bribed or browbeaten by security officers into lending a helping hand to rough up activists. During the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2005, some beltagiya were offered 20 pounds (about $3.50) and a chicken lunch for their assistance with intimidating voters and protesters.

After cornering the 50 or so protesters on their balcony and shutting the street to traffic, plainclothes security officers started clearing the street of potential sympathizers. I found myself trailing along with a cluster of very young activists as it was pushed farther and farther away. “It’s forbidden to stand on the sidewalk now?” a girl yelled at a plainclothes officer. “Get out of here,” he said. When I asked who he was, he replied, “none of your business”. When the demonstrators started to chant slogans, the face of the head plainclothes officer contracted into a rictus of rage.

Eventually, he unleashed his “boys” on the protesters. I’ve seen enough of these confrontations to know that group violence needs to build momentum, to come like a wave. And when that wave hits, it’s extremely hard for its targets to stand firm against it. The thugs moved like a pack of dogs, cornering and ganging up on individuals. Eventually they honed in on a young woman who’d been giving them a lot of lip. There was an element of machismo in this, as well as the fact that these guys aren’t averse to copping a feel while delivering a few well-placed smacks.

In the end the protesters, atomized and discouraged, left the area. Sometimes demonstrators are beaten harshly, and sometimes they’re arrested. But as often as not it’s like this, a game of cops and activists, one side provoking and the other intimidating, the scent of violence in the air.

The truth is it’s not what security forces do to the demonstrators that matters the most. It’s what they do to the people all around, the bystanders in shop doorways and open windows who watch with a nervous smile, or a shake of the head. These goons are delivering a lesson, a little moral message: stand up to us and you will be publicly humiliated. The street doesn’t belong to you.

The common use of beltagiya is crude but efficient; it allows the security officers to distance themselves from any violence (“it wasn’t government troops, just some Egyptian patriots who got carried away”). It also, by involving these powerless, mindless young men, makes them and by extension all Egyptians complicit in their own oppression.

Of course as Egypt goes through its “democratic reforms”, the authorities are also picking up a few new tricks, learning to frame repression in the language of the day. An unnamed security official told newspapers recently that “this is not the time for demonstrations”, given the recent terrorist bombings in Sinai. The government has also promised to eventually replace emergency law with an anti-terrorism law.

American officials had called for an end to emergency law last year, and they described its extension as a “disappointment”. But they don’t seem interested in making a big deal about it. They’ll have even less of an opportunity to do so once Egypt passes its very own version of the US’ Patriot Act.