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Egypt’s military given power to detain civilians days before presidential vote

By Ernesto Londoño,

CAIRO — The Egyptian government announced Wednesday that military police and intelligence officers have been given the right to detain civilians, a move that appears to reflect concern about the prospect of mass protests linked to the upcoming presidential election.

News of the decree issued by the Justice Ministry came on the eve of a highly anticipated court ruling that could disqualify former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq from the presidential runoff vote set for this weekend. The ruling has the potential to unleash widespread anger, particularly if Shafiq is not ruled ineligible under a law that bars senior officials who served under President Hosni Mubarak from political life for 10 years.

The decree was dated June 4, meaning it was issued just four days after the expiration of Egypt’s infamous emergency law, which for decades gave the state broad powers to imprison Islamists and activists it said posed a threat to the ruling party.

The new edict authorizes military and intelligence officials to detain civilians for numerous alleged offenses, including disobeying orders, blocking traffic and going on strike.

Mohamed el-Beltagui, a senior lawmaker from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which holds the most seats in parliament, denounced the decree, calling it a return to a system of “violation of public freedoms.”

He said parliament would hold an emergency hearing on the move and would seek to fight it in the court system.

Human rights organizations also criticized the decision, saying it suggests that the military is reluctant to fully yield power to an elected president later this month. The runoff election between Shafiq and Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, will be held Saturday and Sunday. The Justice Ministry said the decree would remain in effect until a new constitution is in place, a process that could take several months.

“After a year and a half in which the military has expanded its involvement in decision making, legislating, policing and arresting activists, I did not expect the end of June to involve a genuine transition,” said Heba Moyaref, a Cairo-based researcher with Human Rights Watch. “This decree is confirmation of my concern.”

Egyptian revolutionary groups have threatened to stage mass protests if Shafiq is elected president. They contend he should not have been admitted as a candidate in the first place under the so-called Political Isolation Law, which was passed by the Islamist-dominated parliament shortly before the presidential race kicked off.

Shafiq’s popularity surged toward the end of the initial campaign period as he vowed to restore order and security after the chaos and violence that followed Mubarak’s ouster on Feb. 11, 2011.

Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

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