Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has approved a controversial antiterrorism law which imposes harsh penalties on crimes ranging from speech deemed to incite violence to forming, leading or funding a terrorist group.
Criticised by human rights groups, the law also brings in heavy fines for journalists who report accounts of terrorist incidents which diverge from the official version provided by the defence ministry.
Mr Sisi had promised to introduce tough legal measures after a car bomb attack in Cairo in June which killed Hisham Barakat, the state prosecutor.
Supporters of the law argue that the government needs strong tools to counter a rising tide of violent attacks by religious extremists, but critics say the legislation curtails basic human rights and could be used to crush dissent.
Militant groups in Egypt have killed hundreds of police and army personnel, mostly in the north-east of the Sinai peninsula, the area of operations of a local affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, which calls itself Sinai Province.
In recent weeks, a bomb attack claimed by SP destroyed parts of the Italian consulate in Cairo and the group announced it had beheaded a Croatian national it had kidnapped just outside the capital.
Under the new law, those who form or lead a group deemed by the government a “terrorist entity” can be punished by death or life in prison. “Promoting ideas that call for violence” or using websites to spread such ideas can incur five to seven years in prison.
The government considers the Muslim Brotherhood organisation of Mohamed Morsi, the elected president ousted by a popularly backed coup in 2013, a terrorist faction and makes no distinction between it and groups such as SP.
The Brotherhood, which led in all elections held after the 2011 revolution, has been the target of a security crackdown since the removal of Mr Morsi, who is currently appealing against a death sentence.
Human rights groups criticise the law’s vague definition of terrorism which they say can extend to cover peaceful opposition and legitimate activities by trade unions, political parties and civil society groups.
They are also concerned about widening the powers of the president to allow him to impose exceptional measures in parts of the country in response to terrorist attacks or natural disaster.
“In the absence of an Egyptian parliament, these powers are without oversight and the authority granted to the president is near-absolute,” said Amnesty International last month in a comment on the draft law.
“The draft law also permits the authorities to take extreme measures that would only be invoked during a state of emergency, and it disregards the stringent conditions required for such measures in international law and standards.”
The law in its draft form had originally stipulated prison sentences for journalists who do not stick to the official version of terrorist attacks, but that has been changed to a fine of up to $65,000.
Earlier provisions that would have created special courts and speeded up trials for terror suspects have been dropped after opposition from the judiciary.