CAIRO (AP) — In its latest move against terror and dissent, Egypt on Monday declared all key government facilities military establishments protected by troops for the next two years and detained a prominent pro-democracy activist on trial for organizing an unauthorized protest.
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a general-turned-politician who last year ousted the country's first freely elected leader, issued a decree ordering the military to join police forces in guarding vital state facilities against terror attacks. The move would expand the military's already dominant public presence and increase its vulnerability to attack.
The decree stipulated that the perpetrators of any attacks against state facilities will be tried before military tribunals.
Also on Monday, an Egyptian court ordered the detention of activist and blogger Alaa Abdel-Fattah at the start of his retrial along with 24 others for breaking a draconian law on demonstrations. The law requires that all protests receive a police permit in advance.
Abdel-Fattah was convicted in June for organizing an unauthorized demonstration soon after the law came in force and of assaulting a police officer. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but was granted a retrial in August and freed on bail the following month.
His detention comes one day after his younger sister Sanaa Seif and 22 other activists were imprisoned for three years, also for breaking the demonstrations law. The siblings come from a family of prominent activists. Their father, the late Ahmed Seif al-Islam, was a longtime rights lawyer and their sister Mona has publicly campaigned against trying civilians before military courts.
Abdel-Fattah's trial resumes on Nov. 11.
El-Sissi led the military ouster of Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 amid demonstrations by millions of Egyptian demanding that the Islamist president be removed. In the 15 months since, hundreds of Islamists have been killed and thousands have been detained, including Morsi who faces several trials on charges that carry the death sentence.
In a parallel campaign, authorities have cracked down on secular and liberal pro-democracy activists, like Abdel-Fattah and his sisters, jailing scores of them and allowing sympathetic media celebrities to smear their reputations as agents of foreign powers or as morally decadent saboteurs bankrolled by dubious rights groups.
El-Sissi has repeatedly warned against a foreign plot to "bring down" Egypt and declared his commitment to freedom and democracy as long as national interests are safeguarded. He says the law on demonstrations, whose constitutionality is being questioned, mirrors similar regulations in the West.
"It's back to business as usual in Egypt, with the Egyptian government brazenly trampling on the rights of its citizens and Western governments supporting it," Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch, commenting on Sunday's ruling against Sanaa and the others, was quoted as saying in a statement issued late Sunday by the New York-based group.
"The el-Sissi government will clearly go to any length to crush domestic opposition, whether secular or Islamist," she said.
Monday's decree by el-Sissi follows a surge in attacks by Islamic militants against troops and police in the Sinai Peninsula and elsewhere in the country. In the deadliest attack against the Egyptian army in decades, suspected militants killed at least 30 soldiers on Friday in the troubled northern part of Sinai.
Since the attack, el-Sissi has stoked jingoistic sentiments, calling on Egyptians to unite and rally behind him in the fight against the militants, calling it an "existential" battle. He blamed foreign powers he did not name for involvement in Friday's attack in Sinai.
The attack and el-Sissi's reaction inspired an uptick in nationalistic sentiments prevailing in Egypt since Morsi's ouster, with one television talk show host equating human rights with terror and demanding that "no dog" be allowed henceforth to demonstrate.
"No freedom of expression. Forget democracy. Let democracy and those calling for democracy burn," said the host, Ahmed Moussa.
A newspaper columnist on Sunday said anyone questioning el-Sissi's decisions must have his tongue cut off.
Major media outlets have meanwhile publicly declared their unwavering support for the state in the fight against terror and vowed to purge themselves of "closet supporters of terror." One private channel said it intended to bar certain guests from its political programs on charges of being "rumor mongers" — parlance for government critics.
In the past week, several talk show hosts have either been briefly taken off the air in the middle of their programs or prevented altogether from hosting their shows.
"It is not acceptable to hang the country in the name of freedom and it is not understandable either that freedom is executed in the name of security," columnist Abdullah el-Sinnawi, known to be close to the military, wrote in Monday's edition of al-Shorouk daily newspaper.