CAIRO — Egypt's military-backed government is using the coronavirus pandemic to tighten its grip on the country, human rights activists say.

In recent weeks, authorities have ordered up punishments, including prison terms, for anyone they accuse of contradicting official accounts about the pandemic. Political opponents have been linked to the virus and targeted. And under coronavirus-related restrictions, political prisoners are more isolated than ever from the world as the virus threatens them.

On Friday, President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi approved amendments to the nation’s emergency law, giving himself and security agencies additional powers. The stricter measures, the government claims, are needed to address a legal “vacuum” and prevent the spread of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“President al-Sissi’s government is using the pandemic to expand, not reform, Egypt’s abusive emergency law,” said Joe Stork, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. “Egyptian authorities should address real public health concerns without putting in place additional tools of repression.”

The government did not respond to a request for comment.

Only five of the 18 amendments to the law clearly involve public health issues, Human Rights Watch said. For example, the changes allow Sissi to shut down schools, universities, courts and businesses, as well as quarantine people returning from overseas. Other amendments allow him to postpone tax and utility payments as well as provide economic support to affected communities and business sectors.

But they also give Sissi the authority to ban or limit public and private gatherings, even in the absence of any public health emergency. Other amendments allow him to restrict people from owning, transporting, selling, buying or exporting any goods or services, as well as control their prices.

“Some of these measures could be needed in public health emergencies, but they should not be open to abuse as part of an unreformed emergency law,” Stork added.

“Resorting to ‘national security and public order’ as a justification reflects the security mentality that governs Sissi’s Egypt.”

It’s the latest move by Sissi to dictate the social and political rhythms of the Arab world’s most populous nation. Since a 2013 military coup that he led ousted Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s only democratically elected president, Sissi has steadily consolidated his authority.

He has jailed tens of thousands of opponents, especially from the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. Any form of dissent has been stifled, including the shuttering of hundreds of websites deemed critical of his rule. Today, few aspects of political life and civilian spaces remain outside the control of the government, widely seen by critics as the most repressive in Egypt’s modern history.

“I would describe what we’re seeing in Egypt as a window into how authoritarian power that has been consolidated for years can play out and be leveraged amid a moment of global emergency,” said Mai El-Sadany, managing director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. 

Since April 2017, Egypt has been under a state of emergency. The government says it’s needed to combat terrorism and drug trafficking, but critics say these are pretexts to strengthen Sissi’s hold on the country. An update to a sweeping 2015 terrorism law ratified by Sissi in March is widely seen by U.N. officials and activists as potentially allowing even more human rights abuses.

Now, they say, the pandemic is becoming the latest pretext for perpetrating abuses.  

“On one hand, what we are seeing is the culmination of the control that the Egyptian authorities under President Sissi, especially security forces, exert on Egypt,” said Hussein Baoumi, Egypt researcher for Amnesty International. “The government then used this control to manage the pandemic.” 

“That being said, we are seeing a shift in rhetoric, although not fully, in using the pandemic to justify some of these measures,” he added. 

In recent weeks, the government has targeted anyone critical of its efforts to tackle the coronavirus. 

Last month, the U.N. human rights office reported that 15 people were arrested for allegedly spreading “false news” about the virus. A doctor and a pharmaceutical worker were arrested for Facebook video posts complaining about a dearth of face masks.  

The regime has targeted journalists for suggesting that the government is undercounting coronavirus cases. In March, the government forced a Western journalist to leave Egypt after she published figures from experts that suggested that the rate of infected people could be at least 10 times the confirmed cases at the time. 

With a population of 100 million, Egypt has about 9,400 confirmed cases and at least 525 deaths — far fewer than countries with much lower populations. Authorities say that they are being transparent and that their numbers are accurate. 

Egyptian officials have accused the Muslim Brotherhood of disseminating rumors and falsehoods about the government’s efforts to contain the virus. The Interior Ministry recently charged the group with instigating attempts to prevent the burial of a doctor who died of the virus. 

But activists say the attempts to link the pandemic to the Brotherhood could lead to more arrests and abuses against anyone suspected of opposing the regime. 

The pandemic is also being used to silence political prisoners, activists say. As many as 114,000 inmates, the United Nations says, are held in overcrowded, unsanitary prisons and detention centers, including tens of thousands democracy activists, political opponents, journalists and bloggers. Instead of a mass release of prisoners to prevent the spread of the virus, as other authoritarian governments in the region have done, the government has denied the inmates visits from families and lawyers.

“The one major area where we are seeing the authorities expanding its control primarily under the pretext of covid-19 is the ability of political prisoners to contact the outside world,” Baoumi said. “With the suspension of family visits, coupled with the prevention of many political prisoners from sending or receiving letters, that has meant that they are cut off from the outside world.”

Baoumi is concerned that the regime could use the pandemic to crack down on the few remaining civil society groups or online media in the country — or perhaps use virus-tracking applications to increase surveillance in society.

“It remains to be seen how the pandemic develops and if the authorities will then use it to restrict the very little space that remains open,” he said.