Egypt's military to guard key state installations

2014-10-27 19:04
An Egyptian soldier keeps guard at a watch tower on the Egyptian side of the border with Israel in the Sinai. (David Buimovitch, AFP)

An Egyptian soldier keeps guard at a watch tower on the Egyptian side of the border with Israel in the Sinai. (David Buimovitch, AFP)

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Cairo - Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi on Monday ordered the military to join police forces in guarding vital state facilities against terror attacks, a move that would expand the military's already dominant public presence since it toppled Islamist President Mohammed Morsi 15 months ago.

The president's decree stipulated that army troops will join police in guarding state facilities for two years, during which they will be treated as military installations. The perpetrators of any attacks against the facilities will be tried before military tribunals.

Also on Monday, an Egyptian court ordered the detention of one of the country's most prominent pro-democracy activists, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, at the start of his retrial along with 24 others for breaking a draconian law on demonstrations.

Abdel-Fattah was convicted in June for organising an unauthorised demonstration in November 2013 and of assaulting a police officer. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but was granted a retrial in August. He was freed on bail the following month.

His detention comes one day after his younger sister Sanaa Seif was imprisoned for three years, also for breaking the demonstrations law. The siblings come from a family of prominent activists. Their father, the late Ahmed Seif al-Islam, was a longtime rights lawyer who was repeatedly imprisoned.

Their sister Mona is also an activist, who has publicly campaigned against trying civilians before military trials.

El-Sissi's decree follows a surge in attacks by Islamic militants against troops and police and the weekend killing of 30 soldiers by suspected militants in the troubled northern part of the Sinai Peninsula - the deadliest attack against the Egyptian army in decades.

El-Sissi, a general-turned-politician, slapped a dusk-to-dawn curfew on northern Sinai after the attack as a flurry of media reports spoke of preparations by authorities to evacuate civilians from Sinai's hotspots to give the military more room to manoeuvre.

Suspected militants have repeatedly bombed gas pipelines, power lines and telephone exchanges. In Cairo, Morsi supporters are blamed for blocking or throwing oil on key roads and bridges to disrupt traffic in the city of some 18 million people.

El-Sissi, who led the July 2013 military takeover that removed Morsi after one year in office, has been seeking to rally the nation behind him in the fight against the militants, calling it an "existential" battle. He blamed foreign powers he did not name for involvement in Friday's attack in Sinai.

Jingoistic sentiments

The attack and el-Sissi's reaction have whipped up jingoistic sentiments in Egypt, prompting some media outlets to publicly declare their unwavering support for the state in the fight against terror or to bar certain guests from their political programs on charges of being "rumour mongers" - parlance for critics, no matter how mild, of the government.

In the past week, several talk show hosts have either been briefly taken off the air in the middle of their programs or prevented altogether from hosting their shows. The clampdown on the freedom of expression in the name of the fight against terror is the latest encroachment on liberties in Egypt since el-Sissi removed Morsi in July 2013.

In the 15 months since, authorities have killed hundreds of Islamists and jailed thousands, including most of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic group from which Morsi hails.

A parallel crackdown has been under way against secular pro-democracy activists who fuelled the 2011 uprising that topped long seving ruler Hosni Mubarak.

El-Sissi has repeatedly warned against a foreign plot to "bring down" Egypt and declared his commitment to freedom and democracy as long as national interests are safeguarded. He says the law on demonstrations, whose constitutionality is being questioned, mirrors similar regulations in the West.

On Sunday, a Cairo court convicted Abdel-Fattah's sister Sanaa and 22 other activists of violating the law on street protests, sentencing them to three years in prison, a fine of about $1 400 and placing them under police surveillance for three more years after their prison terms end.

Business as usual

"It's back to business as usual in Egypt, with the Egyptian government brazenly trampling on the rights of its citizens and Western governments supporting it," Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch was quoted as saying in a statement issued late on Sunday by the New York-based group.

"The el-Sissi government will clearly go to any length to crush domestic opposition, whether secular or Islamist."

The 23 allegedly organised and took part in a demonstration last June near el-Sissi's palace in Cairo against the demonstrations law adopted late last year - which criminalises street protests staged without a prior police permit.

The law has deepened the rift between el-Sissi and his supporters on one hand and liberal pro-democracy youth groups on the other.

"It is not acceptable to hang the country in the name of freedom and it is not understandable either that freedom is executed in the name of security," wrote columnist Abdullah el-Sinnawi in Monday's edition of al-Shorouk daily newspaper.

Read more on:    abdel-fattah el-sissi  |  egypt  |  north africa

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