Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has approved amendments to the country’s state of emergency that grant him and security agencies additional powers, which the government says are needed to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The changes on Saturday were condemned by a prominent rights group, which said Cairo has used the public health crisis to “expand, not reform, Egypt’s abusive Emergency Law”.
The new amendments allow the president to take measures to contain the virus, such as suspending classes at schools and universities and quarantining those returning from abroad.
But they also include expanded powers to ban public and private meetings, protests, celebrations and other forms of assembly.
The government has waged an unprecedented crackdown on dissent since 2013, when el-Sisi led a military coup that deposed his democratically-elected predecessor, President Mohamed Morsi, of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood movement.
The amendments also allow military prosecutors to investigate incidents when army officers are tasked with law enforcement or when the president orders it.
The country’s chief civilian prosecutor would have the final say on whether to bring matters to trial.
The amended law would also allow the president to postpone taxes and utility payments as well as provide economic support for affected sectors.
Parliament, which is packed with el-Sisi supporters, approved the measure last month.
Unauthorised protests have been banned for years in Egypt, which has been under 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 broader powers for counterterror measures and fighting drug trafficking.
The government said the amendments were needed to address a legal “vacuum” revealed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Egypt, with a population of 100 million, has reported nearly 8,500 confirmed coronavirus cases and at 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 could be needed in public health emergencies, but they should not be open to abuse as part of an unreformed emergency law,” said Joe Stork, the New York-based rights group’s Middle East and North Africa director.
“Resorting to ‘national security and public order’ as a justification reflects the security mentality that governs Sisi’s Egypt.”
In response to the pandemic, Egypt has halted international air travel and shuttered schools, universities, mosques, churches and archaeological sites, including the famed Giza pyramids.
A curfew is in place from 9am till 6pm local time. The partial lockdown is to continue for another two weeks, until the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.