In a presidential decree, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has rendered all public property – including power stations, universities, roads and bridges – as “equivalent to military facilities”. The decree means that any defendant accused of committing a crime on public property could be tried in a military court, a judicial system that Amnesty International says lacks due process and “cannot be seen as impartial and independent”.
Sisi’s decree, rubber-stamped by his cabinet in the absence of a sitting parliament, follows the death of at least 31 Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai peninsular on Friday. The militant assault, one of the bloodiest attacks on the Egyptian army in its peacetime history, has prompted Sisi to intensify efforts to stop a long-running insurgency by jihadists with links to Islamic State (Isis) that has significantly escalated since the overthrow of former president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.
Since Friday, Sisi has declared a state of emergency and a curfew in the affected part of the peninsular, and now extended the military’s influence over public space across the country.
The government says this is aimed only at making it easier to defend state institutions, and to prosecute terrorists who attack them. “Do you really think that the government will apply those military trials [to] activists without justification?” asked a senior government official. “We are talking about terrorists committing serious crimes against the military and police.”
But rights campaigners believe the decree clearly makes it easier to jail protesters and student activists, especially in a country where demonstration without a permit is now illegal, and in an environment in which political opposition is often equated to terrorism.
Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and north Africa, said: “This will pave the way for mass military trials of civilians including peaceful protestors and university students. The wording of the law is so broad that in effect it may be used to ban all protests to silence any dissent and put protesters in the hands of kangaroo courts.”
Since Sisi overthrew Morsi, tens of thousands of political prisoners have already been jailed or tried in Egypt’s civil judicial system, which is also often accused of lacking due process. Hadj Sahraoui argued the new decree makes it even easier for the Egyptian authorities to convict dissenters.
“Military courts cannot be seen as impartial and independent,” she said. “The disturbing truth is the government passed this law to remove any chance of an independent and impartial judge ever delivering a not-guilty verdict.”
Nevertheless, many Egyptians welcome Sisi’s response to Friday’s attacks, with his strongman rule seen as the only bulwark against the chaos wrought elsewhere in the Middle East by extremists such as Isis.
On Sunday, 17 editors from both state and private newspapers issued a joint statement backing the government’s fight against terrorism, and reiterating “our rejection of attempts to doubt state institutions or insult the army or police or judiciary in a way that would reflect negatively on these institutions’ performance”.