The move by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi theoretically rolls back sweeping powers the government wielded in the name of fighting terrorism, but critics called it a cosmetic change.
CAIRO — Egypt’s authoritarian president announced Monday that he had lifted a four-year-old state of emergency, undoing powers that had given the government sweeping authority to quash protests, detain dissidents and control everyday life in the most populous Arab country.
The proclamation by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, coming amid global criticism of Egypt’s human rights abuses, theoretically ends a decree that had been renewed every three months since 2017. But critics called it a superficial change that would not fundamentally alter the repressive system that has prevailed in Egypt for most of the past 40 years.
In a statement posted to his social media accounts on Monday evening, Mr. el-Sisi said he was not extending the state of emergency, which technically expired on Saturday, because the country had finally achieved enough “security and stability” to do without it.
“Egypt has become, thanks to its great people and loyal men, an oasis for security and stability in region,” he said in the statement. “So, I have decided for the first time in years not to extend the state of emergency nationwide.”
Apart from a few months’ respite in the years after its 2011 revolution, when another authoritarian leader, Hosni Mubarak, stepped down amid mass protests, Egypt has been under a state of emergency since the assassination of Mr. Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar Sadat, in 1981, always in the name of maintaining order and safety.
Over that time, the state of emergency has been the government’s broadest tool for crushing dissent, leading critics to accuse the government of using the threat of terrorism to distract from its human rights abuses.
While rights advocates cautiously welcomed the announcement, they warned that ending the state of emergency would not mean braking repression in Egypt, where thousands of dissidents are in detention, the press and social media are tightly controlled by the state, and public criticism and protests are all but nonexistent.
Even without a state of emergency, few expect the government to change the way it does business.
“I see this as a purely cosmetic move: Sisi has all the repressive powers he needs already, outside of the Emergency Law,” Amy Hawthorne, the research director for the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington-based advocacy group, said on Twitter.
She added in a separate message: “Releasing political prisoners and ending the trials of those currently being prosecuted in the state security emergency courts would be much more meaningful.”
For all their skepticism, rights advocates said they hoped the move signaled more loosening of restrictions to come.
“This is something everyone is going to be watching,” said Ragia al-Omran, a rights lawyer. “All eyes on Egypt on that.”
In 2013, when Mr. el-Sisi was the top army general and the defense minister, he led the overthrow of Egypt’s only freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi. The government imprisoned Mr. Morsi and many of his allies, and Mr. el-Sisi became president in 2014.
Mr. el-Sisi imposed the current national state of emergency in April 2017, after two church bombings killed 47 people in the Egyptian cities of Alexandria and Tanta on Palm Sunday, saying it was necessary to combat terrorism — the same justification Egypt has repeatedly invoked to defend harsh security crackdowns.
Under the state of emergency, Egyptian security services could detain people indefinitely, interrogate suspects, monitor communications and spy on ordinary citizens. The army was empowered to intervene to enforce security if needed. The government could monitor media outlets and censor their content before publication, evict residents and seize property, all with little or no judicial oversight.
Hossam Bahgat, the executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a prominent rights advocacy group, noted that the decision would not affect the political prisoners currently behind bars, nor those currently facing trial in emergency security courts that the government routinely uses to prosecute dissidents.
But, he said, it would prevent the authorities from bringing new cases to trial in such courts, which are presided over by judges chosen by the president and bar defendants from filing appeals.
“It’s a limited but welcome step in the right direction,” Mr. Bahgat said.
While Mr. el-Sisi did not detail his reasons for lifting the state of emergency, he did so less than two months after the Biden administration said Egypt would not receive $130 million of the $1.3 billion it receives in annual American aid unless it made certain human rights reforms. Those conditions have not been made public.
The concessions he has made in recent weeks — including ending the state of emergency and dropping legal cases against a handful of civil society and advocacy groups — do little to lessen Mr. el-Sisi’s control of the country’s politics.
Egypt’s Constitution calls for any state of emergency to be reviewed every three months. The last three-month period expired last week, but Mr. el-Sisi’s announcement Monday was the first official word that it would not be renewed.
Nada Rashwan contributed reporting.