CAIRO: Egypt’s parliament voted on Tuesday to extend a decades-old state of emergency for a further two years, the official MENA news agency reported.
"The People’s Assembly has approved by a 308-member majority the presidential decree to extend the state of emergency for a period of two years," MENA said.
A parliamentary source told AFP that 103 MPs had voted against the extension of the controversial emergency law, which MENA said is due to take effect on June 1 and run until May 31, 2012.
The People’s Assembly has 454 members. It was not immediately clear whether the remaining 43 lawmakers had not attended the session or abstained from voting.
President Hosni Mubarak issued a decree on Tuesday to extend the state of emergency in place for three decades by a further two years despite sharp criticism by rights groups and opponents. Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif presented the decree to parliament.
Nazif however sought to reassure critics by pledging only to apply the controversial law, which gives police extended powers of arrest and suspends constitutional rights, to cases of terrorism and narcotics.
"The government as it requests an extension of the state of emergency for a duration of two years, commits itself … not to utilize the extraordinary measures made available under the emergency law except to confront the threat of terrorism and narcotics," Nazif told the People’s Assembly.
The law has repeatedly come under fire from international rights groups, who say that thousands of prisoners have been detained without charge, many for over a decade.
It is not the first time that the government has pledged to limit the use of the law to terrorism and narcotics and opponents and rights groups have repeatedly accused it of failing to stick by its promises.
Nazif said that this time however, the restrictions to the law’s application would be made explicit in the resolution before parliament.
According to a government press release, the law will no longer allow authorities to monitor all forms of communication, monitor or censor media, confiscate property or evacuate and isolate certain areas.
Under the resolution the government will be legally limited to using extraordinary powers for "the arrest and detention of persons suspected of being involved in crimes of terrorism and narcotics trafficking," the statement said.
The state of emergency was imposed in 1981 after the assassination by Islamists of President Anwar Sadat and has been repeatedly renewed since then.
The controversial law is set to expire on May 31. Parliament would be voting to extend the state of emergency from June 1 to May 31, 2012, cabinet minister Mufid Shehab told reporters earlier.
Egypt’s authorities have used the state of emergency to clamp down on political opponents, including the country’s largest opposition movement, the banned Muslim Brotherhood, whose members sit in parliament as independents.
Protesters, among them parliamentarians affiliated with the Islamist group and members of other secular opposition movements, gathered Tuesday outside parliament to call for an end to the state of emergency.
Some held posters depicting a skeleton to symbolize the Egyptian people with a noose — the emergency law — around its neck.
Others held signs reading "Mubarak says we are a stable country but the NDP says we are in a state of emergency."
The government has since 2005 been saying it would replace the emergency law with new anti-terror legislation.
Last month, Egyptian police beat up demonstrators demanding an end to the emergency law and dozens were arrested.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch last month condemned the law as "abusive."
"The unfettered powers granted to the government to detain anyone they want, at any time, for just about any reason makes real political reform in Egypt impossible," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
"If the government renews this law once again in May, it will only perpetuate its abusive, unchecked rule over the people of Egypt."
The opposition fears the law will be used to crack down on regime opponents ahead of parliamentary elections later this year. Egypt is also to hold presidential elections in 2011.
Human Rights Watch and supporters of high profile dissident Mohamed ElBaradei on Tuesday condemned Egypt’s extension of the state of emergency, saying new restrictions on its application were merely cosmetic.
"The government has stated repeatedly that it would limit the emergency law’s use to narcotics and terrorism. This isn’t a new position," HRW’s Heba Morayef in Cairo told AFP.
"The government’s track record gives little reason for optimism for a shift in attitude," she said.
But the fact the government felt the need to address the issue of law’s application is a "sign that they feel under pressure, knowing that extending the emergency law makes them look bad."
"It’s just a new look for the old emergency law," said George Ishak, a senior member of the National Assembly for Change led by ElBaradei, a former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The law "will still be used against the opposition because authorities can accuse any of them of terrorism," he told AFP.
"We have lived under an emergency for 30 years and we want a normal life. If the goal is really to preserve security, there is a criminal code in place for this," he said. -Additional reporting by Daily News Egypt.