CAIRO — Egypt’s prosecutor general on Wednesday ordered 24 detained activists to be held for four days for protesting a newly passed law criminalizing demonstrations without permits. The decision comes as tensions over the law have raised fears of a new cycle of street violence between the military backed government and democracy advocates.
Official news agency MENA said the prosecutor also issued arrest warrants for two leading activists accused of inciting demonstrators to organize the protest. He also released more than 10 female protesters, who were dropped off stranded in the desert in the middle of the night. Activists put their number at 14.
The detained activists were accused of violating the new protest law by not obtaining a permit from the Interior Ministry, by "using force" and by carrying knives and resisting authorities, MENA said.
Activists Alaa Abdel-Fatah and Ahmed Maher were ordered arrested for "inciting protesters to violate the law." MENA said.
Youth groups renewed calls for protests on Wednesday to press for the detainees’ release and push the government to abolish the law. By midday, a handful of protesters headed to Cairo’s city center. State TV quoted an Interior Ministry official as saying that police will not tolerate illegal protests, setting the stage for a new confrontation.
On Tuesday, security forces used water cannons to break up the demonstration outside Cairo’s upper house of parliament, where protesters denounced a proposed constitutional amendment allowing military courts to try civilians.
The prosecutor general in a statement accused the protesters of "chanting antagonistic slogans against the state" and refusing to listen to the "advice" of security forces to end their demonstration.
The Wednesday statement said that the demonstration "disturbed traffic and affected citizens’ interests," terms mentioned in the protest law. It also accused them of attacking a police officer and taking his telephone.
However, footage from the scene showed police beating up protesters and tearing their clothes while dragging others by the hair. The images, reminiscent of the days of Egypt’s longtime autocrat President Hosni Mubarak, went viral on social networking sites and sparked a wave of anger against interim authorities. Activists said that female protesters were sexually assaulted.
Prominent activist Mona Seif, who was among the female protesters detained and released later, said in a video clip posted on social networking site that protesters were "dragged, beaten up, pushed inside (police) trucks by force" before they were taken on a long ride to the desert.
"I think they want to terrorize us," she told reporters.
Some supporters of the new military-backed government also criticized authorities, warning that the new law will increase opposition and could push secular activists into a common cause with Islamists.
They also warned against turning pro-democracy activists into enemies of the military-backed government, which took power after a popularly backed military coup against Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last summer.
The government says the protest law is needed to restore security and rein in near daily protests by Morsi supporters demanding his reinstatement. The Islamist rallies have often deteriorated into bloody clashes with security forces, leaving hundreds dead.
Morsi’s supporters issued a statement denouncing what they described as "brutal repression."
The Muslim Brotherhood-led alliance spokesman Diaa al-Sawi said Wednesday that the "youth of the revolution stand united and steadfast against tyranny and aggression," adding that he will contact youth to coordinate rallies.
The government’s message has a strong resonance among a public weary of constant protests and unrest since Egypt’s 2011 revolt.
The interim president’s political adviser, Mustafa Hegazy, defended the law and criticized opponents for overlooking its original purpose, which is to deter pro-Morsi’s protests — something he describes as a major demand by Egyptians.
"A big bloc (of Egyptians) that is perhaps the least noisy … is harmed by the systematic violence that starts with political protests," Hegazy told Dubai-based MBC network late Tuesday night in reference to Islamists’ protests.
The law was meant to replace a three-month state of emergency and nighttime curfew which expired earlier this month. These were imposed on Aug. 14, the day security forces dispersed sprawling protest camps by Morsi’s supporters, leaving hundreds dead and sparking wave of unrest that claimed over 1,000 lives — mostly Morsi’s supporters.
In the ensuing backlash, churches were set ablaze, police stations came under attack and security forces were killed in a string of shootings and assassinations. In September, a suicide bomber tried to assassinate Interior Minister Gen. Mohammed Ibrahim with a car bomb but he survived the attack.