CAIRO — Egypt’s president expanded the powers of the country’s armed forces Monday to enable the prosecution of civilians in military courts, a move that rights activists fear will intensify an already searing government crackdown on dissent.
The measures by President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi give the military even broader reach than during the decades under Hosni Mubarak, who applied relentless pressure on perceived opponents until his ouster in early 2011.
Sissi’s decree allows the military to try civilians for a wide variety of crimes, including destroying public property and blocking roads.
Egypt’s constitution already grants the army the ability to try cases that directly involve a military officer or an army installation. But Monday’s edict extends the military’s jurisdiction to cover attacks on “vital” institutions such as power plants, oil fields and bridges.
The move by Sissi, a former defense minister who rose to power as a military strongman, follows a devastating attack last week on an army checkpoint in the Sinai Peninsula, where militant groups have flourished in recent years.
The suicide car bombing killed more than 30 soldiers, making it the deadliest attack on Egyptian army personnel in decades. Government officials said Monday that the law is necessary to ensure the safety of citizens and that it will remain in force for two years.
But military trials in Egypt are often held in secret, and judges mete out swift verdicts that can be challenged only before a military appeals court. Activists say civilian lawyers have trouble navigating the military justice system, leaving defendants without proper legal counsel.
Experts are worried that the scope of the military’s expanded jurisdiction will permanently sideline civilian courts in favor of army tribunals.
“This decree means we will destroy the civilian courts and make military justice the norm,” said Mohamed Zarea, director of the Cairo-based Arab Penal Reform Organization, which offers legal assistance to prisoners. “We can’t just turn all of our state institutions into military institutions.”
The current government has presided over one of the most repressive periods in Egypt’s history, beginning when Sissi toppled Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in a military coup in 2013.
The subsequent rise of a low-level insurgency has contributed to steady attacks against security personnel, killing hundreds.
Authorities have arrested tens of thousands of people in a bid to cripple the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that backed Morsi and that is Egypt’s largest opposition movement. But the clampdown also has extended to secular activists and students opposed to Sissi’s rule.
On Sunday, an Egyptian judge sentenced 23 activists to three years in prison for violating a protest law adopted late last year. In the wake of the Sinai attack, Egyptian media personalities have urged the local press to refrain from publishing stories that would “undermine” the army’s efforts to fight terrorism.
“This is just the imposition of authoritarian power through emergency law,” said Amir Salem, an Egyptian human rights lawyer. “And what it means is that there will be more decrees like this and probably more crackdowns.”
Heba Habib contributed to this report.