CAIRO — Nearly two dozen Islamist women and girls, some as young as 15, were handed heavy prison sentences for protesting in a court ruling Wednesday that came a day after police beat and terrorized prominent female activists in a crackdown on secular demonstrators under a tough new anti-protest law.
The harshness of the sentences and the scenes a day earlier were new signs that the military-backed government is becoming bolder in silencing dissent, turning to abuses reminiscent of the Hosni Mubarak era. Authorities have been justifying tougher measures as needed to fight terrorism and bring stability, while they also appear to be exploiting divisions among secular democracy activists.
The crackdown is rearranging Egypt’s political map after months when authorities were focused on crippling the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist backers of ousted President Mohamed Morsi.
This week, security forces have moved against secular youth activists opposed to the military and police. Some government supporters warn that its actions are widening the base of the opposition and could bring together Morsi supporters and secular activists, though the latter bitterly oppose the Islamists and Morsi as equally authoritarian. The crisis is fragmenting the loose coalition of liberal and secular groups that supported the military in its July 3 removal of Morsi.
In a courtroom in Alexandria, the 21 young female defendants flashed defiant smiles to the media, standing handcuffed in white head scarves and white prison uniforms in the defendants’ cage. They were convicted on charges related to holding a protest Oct. 31 in the city demanding Morsi’s reinstatement.
Among them were seven girls ages 15 and 16, who were sentenced to prison terms until they turn 18. The rest — most ages 18 to 22 — were sentenced to 11 years in prison. Six other Brotherhood members were sentenced to 15 years in prison for inciting the demonstrations.
“We thought they will get a month or something, but we were shocked with the 11 years,” defense lawyer al-Shimaa Ibrahim Saad said.
Meanwhile, hundreds of secular youth activists protested Wednesday in downtown Cairo against the government’s clampdown on dissent. At the center of the crisis is the law issued this week banning any protests or public political gatherings of more than 10 people without a prior police permit, imposing stiff fines and jail terms for violators.
“Those thinking the authoritarian, pharaonic style works will find it doesn’t anymore,” said one protester, Laila Soueif. “There will be a third wave of the revolution much more violent than before. We are witnessing a turning point.”