STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Protestors in Egypt are now paying a price for a mob attack this month. People swarmed over the wall of the Israeli embassy. Now the military government in Egypt has responded. An emergency law curtailing civil rights will remain on the books until at least next June. Protesters who forced out Egypt's president this year wanted that decades-old law to go. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Cairo.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Scores of supporters of the Egyptians facing emergency trials gathered in downtown Cairo last week to protest the military's decision.
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SARHADDI NELSON: They and other critics charge the law that allows for arbitrary arrests and harsh sentences with no appeal is being used by Egypt's military rulers to impose their will. Among those facing court is Tawfiq Mohammad Sarhan. The 23-year-old student was among 39 people arrested in the Giza neighborhood after a mob attacked the Israeli embassy there on September 9.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
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SARHADDI NELSON: Supporters applaud Sarhan's mother when she asks why the military is using the same law created by Mubarak more than 30 years ago to punish his political enemies. She and other relatives of those swept up in a mass arrest in front of the embassy complained that no effort was made to distinguish between passersby and those involved in the attack. Sarhan's sister, Naiyera, says her brother was walking home but stopped to call the fire department because a police station near the embassy was in flames. She finds it ironic that Mubarak and his allies are being afforded their full rights under Egyptian law while ordinary citizens are being stripped of theirs.
NAIYERA: How come my brother, who didn't do anything, that he goes to the emergency lower courts, and the others who really destroyed the whole country go to normal or civilian court?
SARHADDI NELSON: A military official, who spoke on the condition he not be identified or recorded, says the ruling council is using the emergency law to restore law and order. He says the military has expanded the existing emergency law to cover people who conduct sit-ins, shut down roads, or quote "circulate rumors." Retired Major General Mohamed Kadry Said is a senior analyst with the state-funded Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. He says the law also allows the military to bypass lengthy civilian proceedings and deal more quickly with those it deems a threat to national security.
MOHAMED KADRY SAID: They are under pressure because the economy is deteriorating because of security and they cannot make some achievements in security without using this law.
SARHADDI NELSON: But human rights lawyer Ragia Omran predicts the military decision will backfire. She, like many Egyptians, believes the military is trying to deflect a growing backlash over the more than 12,000 civilians it has hauled before military courts since Mubarak was ousted. Those military tribunals, like the emergency courts, bypass Egyptian civil rights laws and lead to stiff sentences, Omran says.
RAGIAI OMRAN: They think that this is the way of getting, like, the, you know, the pressure off of them, but it's only going to make it worse. Because actually, you know, there are more people against emergency law than they were against the military courts, because it affects everybody's lives. You know, it gives them the right to arrest anyone randomly, to, like, you know, prevent meetings from happening. It's a complete farce.
SARHADDI NELSON: Ahmed Maher agrees. He's the cofounder of the April 6 youth movement that helped lead the uprising earlier this year. He was arrested repeatedly by state security officers under the emergency law during the Mubarak era.
AHMED MAHER: (Foreign language spoken)
SARHADDI NELSON: Maher accuses the military rulers of using the law to exert control over groups that disagree with them and to keep them from running in the upcoming elections.
MAHER: (Through translator) We had a revolution but in the end they are still trying to bring back the old system and policies. The only person they've replaced is Mubarak.
SARHADDI NELSON: Meanwhile, the military rulers say they will lift the emergency law when they feel circumstances in Egypt allow it. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.