Egypt's military ruler said the country's decades-old state of emergency will be lifted on Wednesday except in cases of fighting "thuggery," but human rights groups slammed the move as cosmetic.
"I have taken a decision to end the state of emergency, in all parts of the country, except in fighting acts of thuggery, starting on the morning of January 25, 2012," Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi said Tuesday in a televised address.
The move is an apparent bid to placate protesters who have planned mass protests on Wednesday to keep pushing for democratic change, exactly a year after an uprising in Tunisia inspired Egyptians to take to the streets to oust veteran president Hosni Mubarak.
The controversial emergency law, which gives police wide powers of arrest and suspends constitutional rights, has been vehemently criticised at home and abroad.
The US State Department said that combined with the military's transfer of legislative powers to the newly elected parliament on Monday, the easing of the state of emergency was a "major step."
"Taken together, these actions represent major steps forward in the normalization of political life in Egypt," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.
"We are seeking some clarification from the Egyptian government... what they mean by that," she said, referring to the exemption for acts of "thuggery"
"But the fact that they are finally, after these many, many months of demands, taking the major step is very important for Egypt and for its future."
Tantawi's use of the term "thuggery" is controversial because pro-democracy activists accuse the ruling military of using the term loosely to stifle political dissent.
"For all purposes, the state of emergency has not been lifted," said Hossam Bahgat, Director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
The term thuggery "is now being instrumentalised," he told AFP. "It will allow police to use their powers to search and detain anyone suspected of being a thug. 'Thuggery' does not refer to any recognisable criminal offence."
Egyptians have been living under emergency law continuously since Islamists assassinated president Anwar Sadat in 1981 and Mubarak took power.
The United Nations and Western governments have long called for an end the state of emergency, which symbolises the repression of the former regime.
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It was regularly used against political dissidents, allowing police to hold them -- sometimes for years -- without trial.
In September, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) widened the scope of the emergency law -- restricted in 2010 to narcotics and terrorism -- to strikes, traffic disruption and the spreading of rumours.
Tantawi's announcement comes as protesters were preparing for a massive rally in Cairo's Tahrir Square -- the epicentre of the demonstrations that ousted Mubarak.
The military ruler, a long time defence minister to Mubarak, urged the protesters to pursue more formal channels.
"The youth of Egypt, your country is calling you. You have launched this revolution. I urge you to form parties which will have a political role. The SCAF will support you in this," Tantawi said in his address.
The SCAF has grandiose celebrations including parades and fireworks displays lined up for Wednesday to mark one year since the launch of the revolt that forced Mubarak to step down after three decades in power.
But activists say the journey to democratic rule is far from complete and have called for nationwide protests on Wednesday to keep pushing for change.
They accuse the SCAF, and its chief Tantawi, of cracking down on dissent, reneging on promises of reform and violating human rights.
The lifting of the emergency law has been a key demand of protesters who have been taking to the streets for a year.
Bahgat says it is now up to the new parliament to push for an end to emergency rule.
Marathon parliamentary elections which ended just days ago propelled Islamist movements to the centre stage of politics, with the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood now dominating the assembly.
"This will be a decisive challenge for the new parliament," Bahgat said.
"We call on all members to insist of the immediate return of ordinary laws," he said.