Egypt's restrictive emergency law is a key issue in the country's presidential campaign. Opposition candidates and protesters are calling for repeal of the laws, which were first enacted in 1981. They say the government has abused the state of emergency in order to suppress political dissent, but has failed to protect Egyptians from terrorist attacks. Even the sitting president, Hosni Mubarak, gets big rounds of applause at his campaign rallies when he talks about getting rid of the laws.
At an anti-government protest rally in downtown Cairo, one group of women stands out. Most of the other demonstrators are young urbanites, wearing Western-style clothes or fashionable Muslim headscarves.
But these women, five or six of them, are clad in billowing robes and traditional village attire. One wears a black veil covering her face. Some are young, some are elderly. They carry posters bearing the names and photographs of men who have spent years in Egyptian prisons.
One woman waves a photo of her husband, who she says has been jailed for 13 years.
Another woman breaks in, saying her brother was a university student when he was arrested. She says he was taken while he was sleeping, without any charges or any reasons given. She says he remains in detention even though there have been 11 court orders to release him.
Egypt has lived under an official state of emergency for most of its post-colonial history. The current emergency law was passed in 1981 after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat and has been renewed every three years.
The laws give the government wide authority to indefinitely detain, without trial, anyone deemed to be a threat to national security, but human rights groups accuse the authorities of abusing the law to suppress political dissent.
Hundreds of people have been imprisoned for years without trial, especially members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned despite renouncing violence years ago.
Many prisoners are held incommunicado, and there are widespread credible reports that they are routinely tortured. Security detainees who do make it to trial usually appear before special military courts, where they have far fewer rights than in Egypt's regular court system.
Opposition politician Abul-Ela Madi has been detained at least five times under the emergency law, most recently nine years ago when he broke away from the Muslim Brotherhood and formed his own political party. He says the government of President Hosni Mubarak uses terrorism as "a scarecrow," or an excuse to crack down on dissent.
"I think one very important reason for the violence is absence of democracy. And also at the same time, [a] very good solution for facing violence [is] to change the situation to be a more democratic situation," he said. "But the regime uses the [violent groups] … because they [say they are] are afraid of the violence. They need to use the emergency law … to delay a democratic situation."
Repeal of the emergency laws has become a major campaign platform for opposition groups and anti-government protesters.
In a recent interview with VOA, opposition presidential candidate Ayman Nour said one of his first acts, in the event that he is elected president, would be to personally go down to the prisons and release thousands of security detainees.
When asked whether the July terrorist bombings in the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh changed his thinking about the emergency law, he emphatically said no.
He says the emergency law has not protected Egypt from [attacks].
"The only thing that can safeguard us is freedom, democracy, political tolerance and religious tolerance," he said. "These are the principles we call for, and for which we are not afraid to ban the emergency law."
President Hosni Mubarak appears to be feeling the pressure. At his inaugural campaign rally in Cairo earlier this month, the crowd of Mubarak supporters went wild with applause when the president talked about getting rid of the emergency law.
He promises to adopt a new terrorism law to combat this threat without needing to resort to the emergency law.
He then pledges to sponsor new laws that will enhance the independence of the judicial branch and revise the system of indefinite detention without trial.
Although President Mubarak has allowed unprecedented anti-government protests this year, some of the protesters have been harassed, beaten and arrested. A number of Muslim Brotherhood members have been released from jail recently. But at the same time, police have conducted massive security sweeps on the Sinai Peninsula, arresting literally hundreds of people, mostly Bedouins, who they accuse of complicity with terrorism.