Human Rights Watch leveled harsh criticism Wednesday at Egypt's new anti-terrorism law, saying the measure has an overly broad definition of what constitutes a terrorist act and leaves Egyptians open to stiff sentences for things that may amount to "civil disobedience."
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi signed the law Sunday, less than two months after he pledged to strengthen anti-terror policy following a bombing in Cairo that killed the country's top prosecutor.
Among the act's provisions are punishments up to death for forming or leading a terror group, a life sentence for financing terrorism and jail terms for inciting or preparing to incite attacks.
"With this sweeping new decree, Egypt's president has taken a big step toward enshrining a permanent state of emergency as the law of the land," HRW's Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director Nadim Houry said. "The government has equipped itself with even greater powers to continue stamping out its critics and opponents under its vague and ever-expanding war on terrorism."
Egypt has seen sporadic attacks in Cairo but also more persistent violence in the Sinai Peninsula where Islamist militants often target police and soldiers. Those attacks became more frequent after Sissi led the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
HRW's Houry said that while Egypt is facing a serious insurgency, the government should not be "eroding basic rights, curtailing dissent" and using a label of terrorism as a way to strike at its opponents.
After forcing Morsi from power, the government launched a massive crackdown against his Muslim Brotherhood, labeling the group a terrorist organization and arresting much of its leadership. Security forces also responded violently to Brotherhood protests and demands that Morsi be reinstated, setting off clashes that left more than 1,000 people dead.
The United States said Tuesday that it backed Egypt in its fight against terrorism, but also raised questions about the new law.
"We are concerned that some measures in Egypt's new anti-terrorism law could have a significant detrimental impact on human rights and fundamental freedoms, including due process safeguards, freedom of association, and freedom of expression," State Department spokesman John Kirby said.
He reiterated Secretary of State John Kerry's comments from earlier this month stressing the need for those who disagree with the government to be able to "express those views peacefully and through participation in the political process."
The new law also includes punishments for journalists who go against the official version of an attack, threatening them with fines of between $25,000 and $64,000. That is a lesser punishment than a draft version that included possible jail sentences for journalists.
Press freedom groups have criticized the measure as threatening their independence and the right of free expression in Egypt.
Sherif Mansour, program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said Sissi's act prohibited journalists from verifying and reporting on a key issue of public interest.
"The state has effectively made itself the only permissible source of news on these stories," Mansour said.
Even before the new law, the relationship between the government and the press was in focus in Egypt where authorities arrested three Al-Jazeera journalists and charged them with supporting the Brotherhood.
Canadian national Mohamed Fahmy, Egyptian Baher Mohamed and Australian Peter Greste were all sentenced to prison, but an appeals judge ordered a new trial after ruling there was not sufficient evidence to support the charges. The process has been repeatedly delayed, and a verdict is scheduled to be announced on August 29.