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 Islamist 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 offence," as well as damaging state institutions or infrastructure, such as military or government buildings, courthouses, power and gas lines, and archeological 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 long-time 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 Mr. 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.
Mohamed 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.
The law sets heavy fines of $26,000 to $64,000 (U.S.) for publishing "false news or statements" about terrorist acts, or news that contradicts the Defence 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."
Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian journalist branded as a terrorist by the Egyptian government, said the new laws makes it likely that other reporters will meet the same fate.
Mr. Fahmy and two of his colleagues with Al Jazeera English were jailed for more than a year after the Egyptian government accused them of supporting a rival political organization and undermining national security through their media coverage.
He said his imprisonment and two trials were governed by a set of unwritten rules that have now become official Egyptian law.
"It's very clear that if you don't toe the government line, you will be prosecuted," Mr. Fahmy said in a telephone interview from Cairo, where he is free on bail while awaiting a verdict in his case that an appeal court sent for a new trial. It is currently scheduled to be handed down on Aug. 29.