With fighting terrorism as a priority for the Egyptian government, the massive Sinai 2018 operation, initiated to face years of violence in the peninsula, accompanied by a supportive media campaign, the state is also moving to tighten legal control.
Besides an unstable situation in North Sinai, where hundreds of military and police forces were killed and where the deadliest attack on civilians took place last November, there have been major operations in Cairo and other attacks across different governorates.
On Thursday, the State Council discussed two legal issues related to terrorism, one regarding an established council to combat terrorism, and the other relating to penalties for the crime of terrorism.
Declaring a state of emergency in April following a twin attack on churches during Palm Sunday celebrations, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi also announced the establishment of a counterterrorism council.
The body was named the National Council to Combat Terrorism and Extremism and was tasked with “forming a national comprehensive strategy to counter terrorism and extremism,” developing security plans, and raising social awareness to put an end to recruitment by violent groups, a presidential statement read.
This also comes amid reviewing the criminal code to include stricter punishments for crimes related to terrorism. Since the ouster of Islamist former president Mohamed Morsi, dozens of trial cases on terrorism charges were put up, mostly in mass trials, where death penalties were regularly ruled. Hundreds of defendants are still on trial in similar cases.
The council to combat terrorism
National Council to Combat Terrorism and Extremism was established by a presidential decree in 2017.
The members include the heads of parliament, cabinet, Al-Azhar, and the Coptic church, in addition to the ministers of defence, endowments, youth, social solidarity, interior, foreign affairs, communications, justice, education, and higher education, as well as the heads of the General Intelligence Directorate and Administrative Control Authority.
The council further includes public figures mostly in the fields of security, media, and religious affairs.
The president is supposed to meet the council every two months at least. Al-Sisi met with the council for the first time in August.
Terrorism charges, death penalty
The State Council further reviewed amendments proposed by the cabinet with regards to the criminal code, according to local media. Sentences can reach the death penalty or life in prison for the crimes of possessing, importing, or manufacturing explosive materials without being licensed, to serve terrorist purposes.
The death penalty was already present in the criminal code, but as the punishment for using explosives in violent operations and attacks.
The penalty is also included in the antiterrorism law adopted in 2015.
In this law, it applies to a dozen crimes, mainly founding or running a terrorist organisation, funding a terrorist organisation or person, and executing a terrorist act in conspiracy with a foreign entity, in addition to a series of other crimes defined in the law if they involve deaths, for example, assaulting properties of diplomatic missions or international organisations, if any deaths occur as a result.
Death sentences executed
Before the law was passed, criminal courts had to deal with crimes of terrorism, at first associated with the violent protests which erupted post-30 June in support of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Death sentences have been handed to hundreds in mass trials related to those events which often witnessed clashes with security forces and involved deaths on both sides.
Defendants were usually charged with attacking police stations, obstructing roads, spreading terror, participating in non-peaceful protests, and using weapons. One of the most famous cases was the sentencing to death of over 500 defendants by a court in Minya on charges of attacking a police station and the killing of a police officer.
Some of the death penalties, including against Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood leaders, were revoked, while others were issued in absentia with several retrials ordered.
With the increase of violence and operations claimed by different violent groups, cases of belonging and forming armed wings and terrorist cells began in courts.
In mid-February, a court postponed to April the retrial of 15 defendants previously sentenced to death in the case of storming the Kerdassa police station, where at least a dozen officers were murdered and their bodies mutilated.
On the other hand, in December, local media cited unnamed security sources confirming the execution of 15 people charged in cases of terrorism. They had reportedly engaged in operations against the police and military in Sinai.
State institutions in charge of responding to criticism
In February, the Egyptian Parliament’s foreign affairs committee issued a statement condemning a European Parliament joint motion for a resolution urging Egypt to abolish the death penalty, citing hundreds of sentences issued and dozens of penalties executed since 2014. It called on Egypt to ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The committee said, in a statement, the call reflected ignorance of and interference with Egypt’s local affairs and disregarded discussions with Egyptian parliamentarians. The response was based on asserting the independence of the judicial authority, the meticulous legal procedures regarding the penalty, constitutional guarantees of fair trials, and human rights protections.
“The [Egyptian] parliament would like to bring to the attention of the European Parliament that abolishing the death penalty is not an international commitment and is not agreed upon among all states and that promoting concepts that do not correspond to social and cultural values of other societies and trying to impose them on other states through manipulative means that reinforce them as the ultimate truth is unacceptable,” the statement added.
In other situations, the Foreign Affairs ministry had been responsible for responding to foreign reports critical of the political sphere.
Meanwhile, the State Information Service (SIS) is leading a campaign to counter negative foreign media coverage of Egypt, especially on issues of terrorism and violence. On several occasions, the SIS voiced its rejection of the use of terms other than “terrorist” to refer to violent and armed groups in Egypt. It has denounced foreign media organisations by name, including Reuters, the Associated Press, and the BBC.
On 11 February, the SIS issued a report detailing its monitoring of media coverage of the Sinai 2018 operation. The report often linked information it aimed at dismissing to rumours being circulated by the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies, calling them “lies that are blindly circulated by some international media outlets.”
Examples would be “claims that the developmental role undertaken by the army overshadows its defensive role,” “military interference by some regional parties in Sinai to combat terrorism,” or that there is a media blackout on Sinai, especially for foreign reporters.
Control of the media is part of a larger state strategy. Since nearly a year, hundreds of news websites have been blocked in Egypt under the pretext of promoting terrorism and incitement against the state.
Moreover, the antiterrorism law penalises the media in the case of publishing information on terrorist attacks which conflicts with official statements. Journalists are also being persecuted if they publish reports that contain information considered by authorities to be threatening public security and order.
On the international level, Egypt is keen on voicing its determination to fight terrorism, particularly mentioning the roots of funding terrorist organisations.
The country was subject to a series of attacks including three church blasts in December 2016 and April 2017 and an attack on a mosque in Sinai that left over 300 prayers dead including children.