CAIRO — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged the head of Egypt's ruling military council on Tuesday to lift a controversial emergency law that U.S. defense officials said would "cast a shadow" over next month's crucial parliamentary elections.
In his first visit to Egypt since he took office, Panetta used a meeting with Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who's leading the transitional government, to press for an end to the emergency law, which gives the government broad authority to arrest citizens and try them before military tribunals.
The military council's relationship with ordinary Egyptians has deteriorated badly in the nearly eight months since it assumed power after President Hosni Mubarak resigned. One of the main grievances is the emergency law, which the council reinstated last month after protesters stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, forcing the Israeli ambassador to leave the country.
Two weeks ago, the council said it wouldn't lift the law until next June, prompting activists to warn that it would threaten campaigning for the closely watched November elections, the first since Mubarak stepped down. In recent days, after some political parties threatened to boycott the vote, the council said it would lift the law but it has yet to do so.
Speaking to reporters after meeting the military council, Panetta seemed to have received little clarity on the status of the law.
"I did make the request. I thought it was important that they lift the emergency law. The response I got back is that they are seriously looking at the first opportunity to be able to do that," he said.
"I said it was important to be able to lift it if we are going to proceed towards free and fair elections in Egypt. They agreed with that. My hope is that they will lift the emergency law."
Egyptian military officials told Panetta that the Israeli Embassy attack renewed their concerns about their ability to control a still-volatile security situation, according to U.S. defense officials who didn't want to be named while discussing the sensitive talks. The officials said the military council hadn't used the emergency law to detain people, although many Egyptians have been arrested under other laws.
"It wasn't a discussion of any particular criteria" for ending the law, one official said. But "we came away reassured they understood the importance of the issue."
In his remarks to reporters, Panetta tied the January uprising that led to the fall of Mubarak's regime to the 11-year tenure of former President Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated in 1981. He placed a wreath at Sadat's tomb and at a tomb of an unknown soldier, "lives that were given for the cause of peace," Panetta said.
"And now the people of Egypt have the opportunity to build on that important legacy that Anwar Sadat established."
Those remarks would have seemed discordant to some Egyptians, however, particularly because Sadat employed the emergency law for all but 18 months of his presidency, and signed the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Mubarak's fall has unleashed a wave of anti-Israeli sentiment in Egypt stemming from Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and its blockade of the neighboring Gaza Strip.
Egypt's state of emergency was announced on Oct. 6, 1981, after Sadat's death brought Mubarak to the presidency. Mubarak routinely extended the emergency decree when it was due to expire, most recently signing a two-year extension in May 2010.
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