Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi has approved amendments to the country’s state of emergency which grant him and the security agencies additional powers, which the government says are necessary to contain the spread of new coronavirus.
The changes were condemned on Saturday by a human rights group, which said Cairo had used the public health crisis to “extend, not reform, the abusive Egyptian emergency law.”
The new amendments allow the president to take measures to contain the virus, such as suspending classes in schools and universities and quarantining those returning from abroad.
But they also include broad powers to ban public and private meetings, demonstrations, celebrations and other forms of assembly.
The government has led an unprecedented crackdown on dissent since 2013 when al-Sissi led a military coup that ousted his democratically elected predecessor, President Mohamed Morsi, from the now banned Muslim Brotherhood movement.
The amendments also allow military prosecutors to investigate incidents when military officers are responsible for law enforcement or when the President orders them.
The country’s chief civil prosecutor is said to have the final say on whether to bring the cases to justice.
The amended law would also allow the president to defer taxes and payments for public services as well as provide economic support to affected sectors.
The parliament, which is brimming with supporters of al-Sisi, approved the measure last month.
Unauthorized protests have been banned for years Egypt, which has been in a state of emergency since April 2017. The government extended it late last month for another three months.
The law was originally passed to give the president more powers to fight terrorism and fight drug trafficking.
The government has said the amendments are necessary to fill a legal “void” revealed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Egypt, with a population of 100 million, has reported nearly 8,500 confirmed cases of coronavirus and oneat least 503 related deaths.
However, only five of the 18 amendments are clearly related to public health, and the new powers can be used whenever a state of emergency is declared, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“Some of these measures may be necessary in public health emergencies, but should not be abused under an unreformed emergency law,” said Joe Stork, director of the advocacy group. Middle East and North Africa human rights group from New York Human Rights Group.
“The use of” national security and public order “as justification reflects the security mindset that governs Sisi’s Egypt. “
In response to the pandemic, Egypt halted international air travel and closed schools, universities, mosques, churches and archaeological sites, including the famous pyramids of Giza.
A curfew is in place from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. local time. The partial lockdown is to continue for another two weeks, until the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.