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Could Egypt turn into police state with new law proposal?

In a move described by human rights activists as further restriction on people’s freedom, the Egyptian government agreed to a proposal to force landlords to report their tenants' information to the police.
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CAIRO — The Egyptian government agreed Feb. 27 to a proposal introducing new legal amendments to Anti-Terrorism Law No. 94 of 2015, forcing landlords to inform the police of any new lease contracts, as part of the government’s effort to combat terrorism.

Landlords who do not provide information of their tenants — whether Egyptians or foreigners — are subject to penalties, ranging from a fine to time in prison.

The proposal has raised concerns in terms of human rights and whether or not these new amendments will be used to further clamp down on people under the state emergency that has been imposed on the country for nearly two years.

The amendments were made in response to security and parliamentary demands for tighter control of rented apartments in Cairo, following the Feb. 18 terrorist attack in an area near Al-Azhar Mosque, which killed three policemen, including a national security lieutenant, and wounded six others.

In a Feb. 27 statement, the government said that the new amendments were introduced to curb any attempts to shelter terrorist militants, as part of the state’s commitment to face the threat of terrorism in all its forms across the nation.

In recent years, Egypt has suffered dozens of terrorist attacks, particularly in the northern Sinai Peninsula, a pocket of the Islamic State.

Maha Ahmad, a lawyer and researcher at the Cairo-based Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, expressed concerns that the security forces would take advantage of the new proposal to commit further human rights violations under the pretext of combating terrorism. According to international human rights organizations, these violations have reached unprecedented levels in recent years.

“These amendments restrict the freedom of citizens to elect domicile and their freedom of movement,” Ahmad said.

On Feb. 25, the Egyptian parliament announced that a similar draft law was submitted to the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee for discussion by Maj. Gen. Yahya al-Kadwani, a member of the parliamentary Defense and National Security Committee, along with 60 other parliamentarians.

Undersecretary of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee Nabil al-Gamal said the committee is looking into the proposed amendments, which were approved by the government, and into the draft law in preparation for discussion. The committee will compare the two documents, in the presence of a government representative and the members of parliament sponsoring the draft law, in a bid to reach the best possible and consensual formula.

“The amendments are still proposals and we might change them,” Gamal told Al-Monitor.

According to the state-owned Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, there are about 43,000 leased apartments, which represent 1% of the total 43 million apartments in the country. This is not to mention the 10 million apartments that are unoccupied.

Kadwani, who is pro-government, explained that some apartments were used for terrorist and illicit acts, mainly terror acts, drug trafficking, organ trafficking, prostitution and arms caches.

Commenting on concerns that the bill would be misused to cover human right violations, Kadwani told Al-Monitor, “The proposal is regulatory procedure that would not harm any party. It is some kind of a proactive approach to safeguarding security and stability.”

Meanwhile, Ahmad said that the Ministry of Interior has already begun to implement the ensuing procedures, as the police has been raiding furnished apartments in the heart of Cairo, while the amendments have yet to be approved by the parliament.

Egypt has been under a state of emergency since April 2017, following the attack targeting two Coptic churches in Tanta, north of Cairo, and Alexandria in the north of the country, which killed 45 people.

The emergency law gives greater powers to the security authorities to carry out arrests and monitor and restrict people’s freedom of movement.

Ahmad noted that the government has yet to hold community dialogues to dispel the fears of citizens vis-a-vis the proposals. She noted that the Commission for Rights and Freedoms reported that the police have indeed searched leased apartments and harassed tenants without any search warrants. They also confiscated IDs, which is a flagrant violation of the constitution.

Khaled Okasha, a retired brigadier general and member of the Supreme Council for Combating Terrorism and Extremism, said that the new proposals would facilitate the police work in gathering complete data on tenants in a bid to curb terrorist acts, as some apartments are used for storing weapons and as safe havens to carry out operations.

“Dozens of terrorist operations took place in Cairo over the past two years, during which terrorists used to rent apartments as hideouts where they hatched their plans. This is what prompted the government to submit the bill,” he said.

Okasha noted that landlords used to ignore to flag any situation to the security services, for fear of having to pay the taxes they were evading. He believes that the new proposals would restore order and facilitate the job of the police.

According to the Ministry of Interior estimates, many terrorist elements have used furnished rented apartments to hide and to plan for at least 85% of the terrorist operations that have hit the country in recent years.

Former Assistant Interior Minister Maj. Gen. Mohammed Zaki said that the proposals are merely regulatory and precautionary measures to help the security forces thwart any terrorist activities against the state. “The proposal would make it difficult for terrorists to plot but would not stop them from carrying out operations,” he told Al-Monitor.

Director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information Gamal Eid believes that the new proposals strengthen the authority’s grip on the country, and could be used to collect more taxes from citizens. He told Al-Monitor that the government could use the data the police possesses to impose taxes on landlords for renting out their apartments, which would further cause financial hardship to citizens.

He explained that it is not the police prerogative to collect taxes unless they create a database of all furnished rented apartments. “All indicators confirm that these proposals and any ensuing laws will not be used for their proper purposes,” he concluded.

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