CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's military-backed interim president said Thursday that the country's uprisings have put an end to the police state, even as the government came under new criticism over abuses by security forces amid a heavy-handed crackdown on Islamists and other dissenters.
Adly Mansour's comments were part of a campaign to rehabilitate the image of the security agencies whose abuses and grip on political life were a major factor fueling the 2011 uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak, which marks its third anniversary Saturday. Though there has been little reform of the agencies since, the police have surged back into prominence, touted by authorities as heroes, after the military's ouster of Mubarak's elected successor, Islamist Mohammed Morsi.
Since Morsi's ouster on July 3, security forces have jailed thousands of members of his Muslim Brotherhood, which has also been declared a terrorist organization. Hundreds of Morsi supporters were killed in police crackdowns on their protests. Amid a wave of nationalist sentiment, the crackdown has extended to other critics: A number of journalists and many of the top secular activists who led the anti-Mubarak uprising and oppose the military's dominance now have been detained.
In the latest sign of the air of intimidation against dissent, a court sentenced a blogger, Ahmed Anwar, to three months in prison on Thursday for "insulting the police" and "misusing the Internet" over a video he posted on YouTube depicting policemen belly dancing — mocking police for recently giving an award to a well-known belly dancer
Anwar told The Associated Press he would appeal, saying the ruling contradicts the new constitution that includes guarantees of freedom of speech, passed earlier this month in a referendum. "Everyone and the media hailed (it) as the best constitution. I was sentenced for a video," he said.
The deputy Mideast-North Africa director of Amnesty International on Thursday called on Egyptian authorities to "change course and take concrete steps to show they respect human rights and rule of law," including release "prisoners of conscience."
Otherwise, "Egypt is likely to find its jails packed with unlawfully detained prisoners and its morgues and hospitals with yet more victims of arbitrary and abusive force by its police," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
Egypt's Foreign Ministry described the report as "tarnishing the facts" and said the government respects human rights while it is engaged in "combating terrorism."
Authorities have justified many police actions as part of a fight against terrorism, amid a wave of Islamic militant attacks since Morsi's ouster. That message has met strong sympathy among much of the public, where there is considerable support for the military and resentment of the Islamists.
Millions protested against rule by Morsi and the Brotherhood over the summer, prompting the coup. Since then, pro-military media have touted the police as heroes and often brand secular activists critical of the police, military or Mansour's government as either Morsi's supporters or foreign agents.
In the latest militant violence, masked gunmen riding on motorcycles sprayed a police checkpoint in the central province of Bani Sueif with bullets, killing five policemen and wounding two, the Interior Ministry said. Thousands of mourners chanted against the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi at the funeral.
Mansour's comments came in a speech for Police Day, a holiday commemorating the security forces, which falls on Saturday, coinciding with the anniversary of the 18-day uprising against Mubarak, which began on Jan. 25, 2011.
The day could bring rival rallies into the streets. Military loyalists have called on Egyptians to mass in Cairo's Tahrir Square and urge army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who ousted Morsi, to run for president. El-Sissi has yet to announce his intentions.
At the same time, Morsi's Islamist supporters have called for escalated protests to "break the coup" and ignite a new revolution.
Early Thursday, hundreds of pro-Morsi students clashed with security forces in fierce street battles in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, leaving one protester dead, according to security officials. Brotherhood websites circulated pictures of the slain student, Amr Khalaf, with a bloody head. In one of his last Facebook postings, Khalaf identified himself as "the next martyr" with a picture reading, "waiting my turn."
In 2011, activists launched their anti-Mubarak protests intentionally on Police Day to denounce the widespread abuses by security agencies under his nearly 30-year rule — including torture, arbitrary arrests and corruption. The protests swelled into an all-out revolt against him, fueled by hatred of police, as well as economic woes and frustration with years of autocracy. Police forces virtually collapsed after battles with protesters.
The ceremony in the Police Academy was the first official celebration of Police Day since the 2011 uprising. In his address, Mansour made a rare reference by officials to police abuses under Mubarak — though he presented them as individual transgressions and a thing of the past.
"The glorious revolution healed a chasm caused by wrong practices of commanders or individuals who were mistaken in understanding their role in protecting the nation and the people and misused power," Mansour said.
He added that Egypt is starting a "new era" where police "preserve the dignity of the Egyptian citizen," marking "a definitive end to the police state, never to return."
In the same celebration, Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim — who heads the police — referred to the Brotherhood group as "forces of evil" and vowed the police will take the lead in "dealing with terrorism."
Critics say the security forces have used the fight against terrorism as a pretext to silence any form of dissent.
In one recent case, Emad Shahin, a political science professor who taught the American University in Cairo, Harvard and other prestigious universities, was listed among some 130 defendants, including Morsi, on charges of conspiring with foreign militant groups to destabilize Egypt. Shahin, currently in the United States, denied the charges on his Facebook page as "far-fetched."
AP reporter Maggie Hyde contributed to this report from Cairo, Egypt.