By Yasmine Saleh
CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi on Thursday used the legislative powers he wrested back from the army this month to pass a law banning the pre-trial detention of journalists, a move that may deflect criticism of his handling of the media.
The announcement by the newly elected Islamist president came hours after a court ordered the pre-trial detention of Islam Afifi, the editor-in-chief of the Al-Dostour opposition newspaper, on charges of insulting the president.
Egypt's media crackdown has alarmed the United States, which has for years secured the loyalty of one of the Arab world's most influential states by giving it substantial financial aid, now running at about $1.55 billion a year.
"We did express concerns quite strongly that one of the cornerstones of a vibrant democracy is a free press and respect for freedom of expression and called on Egypt to ensure that it is protecting those freedoms moving forward," Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman for the State Department, told a news briefing on Thursday.
The new law comes a day before planned protests against Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood, which backed his presidential bid. The Al-Dostour newspaper has been very supportive of the protests.
"Mursi's decision does not cancel the fierce attacks on the media that were led by Brotherhood members and its timing is only a last minute attempt to cancel Friday's demonstrations that journalists and novelists will participate in," political analyst Mustapha Al-Sayyid said.
On August 12, Mursi dismissed the top generals who had led a military council that had ruled Egypt after the fall of Hosni Mubarak last year.
He also cancelled a decree which the army had issued giving itself legislative powers in the absence of parliament, thereby granting himself both executive and legislative powers. Opponents have accused him of concentrating too much power in his own hands.
Last week, state prosecutors filed charges against two journalists, including Afifi, who a court ordered detained on Thursday, pending his trial over accusations that he insulted Mursi. Judge Mohamed Shahin told the court the case would be adjourned to September 16.
Speaking by telephone to Reuters after that ruling but before Mursi's new legislation was passed, Afifi described the detention order as a "real test" and asked "every apparatus of state to stand against attempts to suppress and silence voices".
In what critics saw as an act to muzzle the press, a large number of copies of Al-Dostour were confiscated this month, though some still made it to the newsstands.
Although activists generally praised Mursi's decision saying it went some way to satisfying the expectations of many Egyptians who believed last year's overthrow of Mubarak would lead to greater media freedom, many said it was not enough.
Seven editors were put on trial during Mubarak's last years in power accused of publishing factually incorrect information or questioning the health of the now 84-year-old former leader. One of them, Ibrahim Eissa, got a two-month jail sentence but was pardoned by a presidential decree issued by Mubarak.
"We welcome the decision but it is not all we ask for, we want a law that bans any form of detention in crimes related to the press and not only a bar on journalists' detentions pending trials," human rights activist Gamal Eid said.
Legal and media experts said that Egyptian law prior to Mursi's decree on Thursday authorized the pre-trial arrest of journalists in cases where they were accused of insulting the president, state institutions or the leaders of foreign states.
The law also allowed journalists to be jailed if convicted by courts.
Mursi drew further criticism when the Islamist-dominated upper house of parliament appointed new editors to several state newspapers. Though this had been common practice under Mubarak, critics said Mursi's allies should not have followed the same practice in the new Egypt.
"Thursday's decision shows that the Brotherhood is concerned about its publicity and feels that more pro-freedom actions need to be taken for it to maintain public support after the series of violations committed against the media," Eid said.
Opponents of Mursi - including former liberal parliamentarians - called for Friday's protests. But other groups usually critical of Mursi said they would not participate, including the April 6 youth movement that helped stir up protests against Mubarak.
Egypt's liberal Free Egyptian Party said it would not participate in Friday's protests either. Its head, Ahmed Said, wrote on the party's Facebook page that "those who want to bring down the Brotherhood should bring them down via elections."
The presidential office and the Interior Ministry both said peaceful protests were allowed as long as remained within the limits of the law.
(Additional reporting by Mohamed Abdellah, Saad Hussein and Omar Fahmy in Cairo and Andrew Quinn in Washinghton; Writing by Yasmine Saleh and Edmund Blair; Editing by Andrew Osborn)