CAIRO (AP) — In a significant leap toward harsher authoritarian rule, Egypt has enacted a draconian new anti-terrorism law that sets a sweeping definition for who and what could face a harsh set of punishments, including journalists who don't toe the government line.
The far-reaching new law adds provisions to protect security forces from prosecution, establishes stiffer prison sentences for terror-related offences, as well as heavy fines for those who publish "false news" and a special judicial circuit for terrorism cases.
Authorities claim the measures will halt attacks by Islamic militants and stop the spread of their ideology, but the new restrictions have prompted concern from lawyers, rights groups, the opposition and even some Egyptian politicians and senior judges.
The 54-article bill, signed into law late Sunday by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and announced Monday, establishes an extremely broad definition of terrorism, describing it in one article as any act that disturbs public order with force. Some charges, such as leading or organizing a terrorist group, carry the death penalty.
The law also prescribes heavy prison sentences for a range of crimes, including promoting or encouraging any "terrorist offense," as well as damaging state institutions or infrastructure, such as military or government buildings, courthouses, power and gas lines, and archaeological sites.
Egyptians lived under so-called "emergency laws" for decades that gave police extensive powers, encouraging a culture of excess and brutality among security forces, something that partially inspired the 2011 uprising against longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The law was suspended after his overthrow.
Constitutional law expert Nour Farahat, who helped set up guidelines for the first post-Mubarak constitutional amendments, said the government had ignored all advice concerning the new law's constitutional flaws.
"This is because the Interior Ministry wants that, and the Interior Ministry is now ruling Egypt," he wrote on his official Facebook page. "Emergency laws were in place in Egypt during Mubarak times for 30 years. Did it eradicate terrorism? I fear for a nation where truth is lost."
Rights activists say the new anti-terrorism law is even more draconian than the earlier emergency laws and that police under el-Sissi have already begun to act with the impunity of the Mubarak days, torturing detainees and denying them basic medical services in overcrowded prisons and police holding cells.
The government denies the allegations, insisting that offenders do not go unpunished, though policemen rarely face prosecution and even fewer serve time.
Mohammed Zaree, Egypt program manager at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, said the government has already been acting without restraint in its crackdown on dissent. He described the new law as "a covert emergency law."
"Now they can go after anyone. The law will have an effect on the public sphere and peaceful opposition activities more than terrorists and violent groups, who don't care anyway and disregard the laws," he said.
El-Sissi has led a harsh crackdown on Islamists and other opponents since 2013, when he led the military overthrow of Islamist Mohammed Morsi, the country's first freely elected president, during mass protests against his rule.
Following Morsi's ouster, a long-running insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula surged, with stepped-up attacks targeting the military there and on the mainland, while an affiliate of the Islamic State group established an Egypt branch.
The April 6 group, a leading force behind the 2011 uprising against Mubarak that was outlawed last year over accusations of tainting the state's image and espionage, blasted the new law on its Twitter account, saying it "legalizes the dictatorship of the ruling regime and obscures the truth."
"It criminalizes all peaceful forms of organization and freedom of expression and aims to muzzle the mouth of Egyptians and terrorize them," the group said.
The new law to some extent absolves security forces from prosecution, with an article stipulating that no criminal inquiries will be brought against those who use force to implement its statutes or protect themselves or property from imminent danger. The law does, however, say the use of force must be "necessary and proportionate."
"In the past, they (security forces) had huge authority with almost no accountability," said Zaree, the head of the rights group. "Now, for the first time we have a specific article that will guarantee impunity."
The law also sets heavy fines of 200,000 to 500,000 Egyptian pounds ($26,000 to $64,000) for publishing "false news or statements" about terrorist acts, or news that contradicts the Defense Ministry's reports. It also sanctions, with a minimum of five years imprisonment, the "promotion, directly or indirectly, of any perpetration of terrorist crimes, verbally or in writing or by any other means."
It was not immediately clear what the government or the judiciary would consider "false news," or if the new law would criminalize the publication of statements from militant groups or facts that contradict the government's narrative. Previous drafts of the law had stipulated prison terms for journalists.
The new law provoked criticism from abroad, with the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists calling it "a new, repressive move that would erode the rule of law and brush aside fundamental legal and human rights guarantees."
Egypt has not had an elected legislature for over three years, and legislative authority rests with el-Sissi, who has passed dozens of laws in his 14 months in office.
Debate over them, if any, takes place in an almost unanimously compliant media or behind closed doors. El-Sissi has promised parliamentary elections before the end of this year, and currently enjoys a media-driven wave of support.
The Cabinet approved the draft law last month, two days after a car bomb in an upscale Cairo neighborhood killed the country's prosecutor general, Hisham Barakat. On the day it was approved, Islamic militants launched a multi-pronged attack attempting to seize a northern Sinai town, hitting the military with suicide attacks and battling soldiers for hours.
At Barakat's funeral, a visibly angry el-Sissi shouted that courts must act faster, and his ire was matched by TV reporters calling for the quick implementation of death sentences issued against Islamists, including Morsi and leaders of his now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. Authorities have already branded the group a terrorist organization.
The government has also pushed back aggressively against the foreign media, which officials and pro-government media frequently accuse of bias against the government or exaggerating the scale of militant attacks. The military spokesman has warned local media against using foreign media reports.
The attack on the northern Sinai town, Sheikh Zuweid, is a recent case where the Defense Ministry's account of the violence differed from many reports. While it said that at least 17 soldiers were killed in the sustained fighting, officials from multiple branches of the security forces told journalists that the attack killed dozens more.
The new law also gives stronger powers to prosecutors, and orders existing courts to set up special circuits for handling terrorism-related felonies and misdemeanors — a potentially ominous step that echoes the Mubarak-era State Security Court system. Under Mubarak, a parallel court system with hand-picked judges handled a wide array of cases ranging from mass trials of alleged Muslim Brotherhood members to academics whose research was judged to be defaming Egypt's international reputation. Authorities maintain the new judicial circuit will help speed up prosecutions.
The law also grants the president the right to take "extraordinary measures" to confront terrorism, including evacuating areas or enacting curfews.
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Cairo contributed to this report.