Egypt Poised to Expand Security Powers of President and Military

CAIRO — Egypt is poised to expand the national security powers of the president and military with legislation that will strengthen the hand of the country’s authoritarian government, just as it had appeared to relax its grip last week with the lifting of a longstanding state of emergency.

The House of Representatives approved new amendments to the national terrorism law on Sunday granting the extended powers, and the changes will now go to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for ratification, which is little more than a formality. The amendments give the president the authority to take “measures necessary to preserve security and public order,” including imposing curfews, among other powers.

The changes raised questions about whether Egypt was truly taking steps to open up, as the government has been eager to show. With its human-rights record once again under scrutiny from the United States and Europe, the government recently announced a re-evaluation of some aspects of its handling of political prisoners and other human rights issues. Mr. el-Sisi also decided not to renew the four-year-old state of emergency, which expired last month.

The state of emergency gave the government sweeping powers of surveillance, arrest, censorship and other tactics in the name of fighting terrorism, including the ability to quash protests, detain dissidents and control the everyday lives of Egyptians. Such rules, in one form or another, had been in place for most of the past 40 years.

While some rights advocates welcomed the change, many criticized the government’s moves to address human rights concerns as merely a public relations stunt — particularly as the amendments gave the president and military some powers similar to those they held under the now-lifted state of emergency.

With the amendments to the terrorism law, Egypt will continue to widen the role of the military, which has seen its star rise and responsibilities expand into a range of areas — from pasta manufacturing and hotels to the judiciary — since Mr. el-Sisi, a former general, took power after a military coup in 2013.

If the president approves the changes, the military and police will have permanent responsibility for protecting public infrastructure, essentially handing them control of facilities including gas pipelines, oil fields, power stations, roads, bridges and railway tracks. Anyone accused of trespassing on or damaging such infrastructure would be prosecuted in military courts.

Another amendment that passed the House on Monday would make research on the military and its current and former members without written government consent punishable by a hefty fine of up to 50,000 Egyptian pounds, or almost $3,200.

The timing of the latest legislative changes raised doubts even among members of Egypt’s rubber-stamp Parliament, which is dominated by presidential allies.

“We are not against toughening the penalty for disclosing military secrets or espionage, but we have reservations about the timing, as it coincides with the president’s abolition of the state of emergency and the issuance of the human rights strategy,” said one lawmaker, Maha Abdel Nasser of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, according to the Egyptian news outlet Al Shorouk.

Ms. Abdel Nasser pointed out that the strengthened penalties for publishing information about the military contradicted the national human rights strategy, which promised Egyptians the right to freedom of expression.

Another lawmaker, Mohamed Abdel Alim, formerly of the Wafd Party, who like Ms. Abdel Nasser is neither fully aligned with the government nor with the opposition, also expressed concerns that the amendments would complicate the job of journalists and researchers, Al Shorouk reported.

But, lest anyone doubt his patriotism, he hastened to add that he respected the armed forces.

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