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CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt has begun procedures to end the country's three-decade old state of emergency, the government said on Thursday, a key demand of the protesters who ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February.
The cabinet said it would abide by a pledge to end emergency rule, which gave Mubarak's hated police sweeping powers to crush dissent, before parliamentary elections expected in November.
"The government has decided to start the procedures needed to end the state of emergency, in coordination with the military council," cabinet spokesman Mohamed Hegazy said.
Rights campaigners say the continued emergency powers are an anachronism in post-Mubarak Egypt that saps the credibility of the interim government as a force for democratic change.
Days of street protests broke out in July, fuelled partly by perceptions that the security forces had not been brought to account for the brutal treatment of protesters during the 18-day uprising against Mubarak and that abuses were continuing.
"The government confirms that since it has taken up its responsibilities, it has not taken any of the exceptional measures allowed under the state of emergency ... and has abided by normal legal procedures," a cabinet statement said.
Some Egyptians say the police are trying to change their high-handed ways and have at least become more polite to the public. Others say that, inside police stations, intimidation, bullying and disregard for human rights are as common as ever.
The emergency law, introduced in 1981 after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat by Islamist militants, allowed the police to hold people for months without charge.
Scrapping it will force the police to respect due procedure and the presumption of innocence -- in theory.
"This is empty talk," said human rights activist Negad al-Borai. "The situation in Egypt is horrible and I no longer care if the government says it will remove or keep the emergency law. The issue is to what extent the government is willing to respect human rights."
Amnesty International in April urged Egypt to scrap the law in an 80-page report called "Time for Justice: Egypt's corrosive system of detention."
It listed brutal treatment of detainees that included beatings, electric shocks, suspension by the wrists and ankles for long periods, sleep deprivation and death threats.
Mubarak-era officials brushed off concerns about human rights abuses as unproven allegations or isolated incidents that did not prove any pattern of abuse.
Mubarak, his sons and former Interior Minister Habib el-Adli are now on trial on charges of graft and ordering the killing of protesters during the uprising. They deny the accusations.
Under Mubarak, police would pounce on even small protests, shove demonstrators into vans and cart them away for detention.
Today the authorities can no longer ignore the power of the street. Liberals, Islamists and those with little political allegiance often turn out by the thousand to press for fair elections, access to services and an end to police brutality.
But disputes over the founding principles of post-Mubarak Egypt -- especially the role of the army and religion -- offer a challenge for the ruling generals trying to reconcile the aspirations of opposing, and often hostile, political groups.
The army has vowed to hand power to civilians. Secularists and some government officials fear Islamists, freed to take part in formal politics after Mubarak's ouster, would turn Egypt into a theocracy if they win power.
The main Islamic political groups say they want a civil state with an Islamic reference but have no hidden agenda.
Islamists reacted with indignation on Thursday after a top minister said the government might lay down the basic tenets of a constitution before a new elected parliament gets a chance to debate and vote on the document.
Deputy Prime Minister Ali al-Silimi said the government was drafting a document of constitutional principles that could be implemented before the elections if agreed upon by different political groups and public opinion, newspapers reported.
"A constitutional decree could be issued before the coming parliamentary elections which could be won by one party or more," al-Masry al-Youm quoted Silimi as saying on Thursday.
In a statement, the cabinet said its planned "new constitutional decree will guarantee that the new constitution will represent all people, ensures a democratic system and ... a civilian state."
The Muslim Brotherhood's political wing, Freedom and Justice, which plans to contest half the seats in parliament, said the transition that was already agreed -- elections, then a new constitution -- should proceed as planned.
"We see the constitution as a document made by the people and no one has the right to censor the people's will," the party's secretary-general Mohamed Saed Elkatatny told Reuters.
Tareq al-Zumur, spokesman for the more radical al-Gama'a al-Islamiya, said the idea of issuing constitutional principles before the elections was "legally wrong."
"This will mean ignoring the people's will. The authorities have to call for elections to come first," he said.
Al-Gama'a al-Islamiya was involved in the assassination of former President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981 and was the country's biggest Islamist militant group in the 1990s, but has since renounced violence.
Having constitutional principles approved by the different political forces ahead of the elections "is the right answer to the fears of many in case we end up with a parliament controlled by Islamists," said political scientist Mustapha al-Sayyid.
Writing by Yasmine Saleh and Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Myra MacDonald