Egypt passes law to crush extremists

But critics say President El-Sisi is seeking to stifle dissent and freedom of expression

CAIRO • Egypt passed an anti-terrorism law that gives the authorities more powers to crush a growing extremist insurgency in a move that critics of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi say aims to stifle dissent and the freedom of expression.

Leading members of any group classified as a terrorist organisation will face a life sentence or the death penalty, according to the law that was passed on Sunday night. Advocating terrorist acts "directly or indirectly" will be punished by a jail term of at least five years.

The law also gives the President, subject to parliamentary approval, the right to close off areas, impose curfews and evict citizens.

Journalists would risk paying fines from 200,000 (S$35,856) to 500,000 Egyptian pounds for publishing reports on militant attacks that deviate from the government's narrative.

An initial draft of the law had originally stipulated two years in prison for violators. The law "considers as terrorism every criticism or dissenting voice or act not to the liking of the authorities", Mr Gamal Eid, head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, said on Twitter.

Militant attacks have surged in Egypt since the military ousted President Mohamed Mursi in 2013 after mass protests against his one-year rule.

President El-Sisi has vowed to crush the militancy and revive the Egyptian economy by bringing back tourists and investors, but the persistence of the attacks, and their spread to include foreign targets in the capital, may undermine the President's efforts.

A bomb targeted the Italian consulate in Cairo last month, while Sinai Province, a militant group that has pledged allegiance to Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, said last week it had killed a Croatian citizen it kidnapped west of the capital.

Critics of the President, the ultimate arbiter in Egypt where Parliament has been shut for three years, say that while harsher laws are unlikely to curb militancy, they will give legal cover to the crushing of political dissent.

"Measures that the authorities take on the ground are tougher than what's included in this law," said Mr Negad El-Borai, a lawyer and former secretary-general of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights. "All what this law does is sanction some of the abuses that are actually happening."

Hundreds of extremists, including former president Mursi and leaders of his Muslim Brotherhood, were given the death sentence for charges including terrorism and espionage. International human rights groups and foreign governments have accused Mr El-Sisi's administration of using the judiciary against its opponents, a charge it denies. BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2015, with the headline 'Egypt passes law to crush extremists'. Print Edition | Subscribe