By Tony G. Gabriel
and Mariam Rizk
CAIRO: Egyptian security forces firing tear gas and water cannons on Friday broke up anti-government demonstrations by Islamists defying a draconian new law restricting protests.
Authorities are seeking to put down unrest by both Islamists and secular activists as a government-appointed assembly tries to finish a final draft on an amended constitution by early next week. The draft has raised criticism from democracy advocates for increasing powers of the military and president.
Since a popularly backed military coup ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July, his supporters have been staging near-daily protests calling for his reinstatement. The rallies have often descended into street clashes with security forces or civilians.
To quash pro-Morsi rallies, which have persisted despite a heavy security crackdown, the military-backed government issued the law Sunday banning protests without a police permit. On Thursday, a student was killed when police put down a march by Islamists from Cairo University.
Instead, the law has sparked new protests by Egypt’s secular activists, who had been largely muted since the ouster of Morsi. They accuse the government of giving free rein to police abuses and military power that they had aimed to end with the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
They say the law aims to silence all dissent — particularly ahead of a nationwide referendum on the amended constitution expected in January.
In a news release, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: “We reiterate the concerns we share with civil society representatives inside Egypt that the demonstrations law is restrictive and does not meet international standards. Limiting freedom of assembly, association, and expression will not move Egypt’s political transition forward.”
The past week, security forces have forcefully broken up several protests by secular activists in Cairo. Police also arrested one of the top secular activists, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, on Thursday for allegedly inciting protests in violation of the law. His wife, Manal Bahy Eldin, also an activist, said police beat her during the arrest.
On Friday, prosecutors ordered Abdel-Fattah detained for four days for investigation, according to Mohammed Abdel Aziz, a member of his legal defense team.
A 50-member panel is amending the Morsi-era constitution drafted mainly by Islamists and passed in December. After months of sessions, largely held behind closed doors, the panel is scheduled to vote on a final draft today, but one panelist said the vote could be pushed to Sunday.