Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi signed a tough new anti-terrorism law on Sunday, a package including special courts for terrorist offenses, stern penalties for those convicted, protections for military and police officers accused of using excessive force to suppress insurgencies, and even financial penalties for journalists who contradict official government accounts of terrorist attacks.
The latter measure was hard for both Egyptian opposition media and international observers to swallow, but as Reuters notes, it was originally even worse: journalists who undermined the official line on terrorist attacks were supposed to get jail time. In the “watered-down” version al-Sisi approved on Sunday, the penalty is merely a fine of up to $64,000 U.S.
Some of these measures are, to put it mildly, contrary to Western notions of press freedom and due process. The al-Sisi government argues they are necessary to deal with not only a two-year insurgency from deposed Muslim Brotherhood forces, but also new threats from the Islamic State, which has been muscling into the North Sinai region.
Of course, critics will complain that the sort of anti-terrorist measures al-Sisi has implemented can be easily employed to stifle more legitimate forms of dissent. If nothing else, the potential cost of banned activity or “improper” journalism can be raised so high that people are afraid to engage in it.
Among the other measures included in the new package are punishments of death, or life in prison, for organizing or financing a “terrorist entity,” along with 10-year jail sentences for belonging to them. Incitement to violence, or even “promoting ideas that call for violence”— including use of the Internet for such purposes — brings five to seven years in prison.
The BBC collected some negative reactions to the new anti-terror law, beginning with Amnesty International’s assessment that it would “effectively ban the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.”
“Midnight laws mark the republic of darkness. A law which has been passed, and considers all criticism or dissenting voice or acts that are not to the state’s liking… terrorism,” said human rights activist Jama Eid on Twitter.
“The anti-terrorism law signed by Sisi clearly tells journalists and anyone with an opinion: Very dark days lay ahead,” said Mahmoud Sultan, editor of the pro-Islamist newspaper Al-Misriyun.
Supporters countered that the severity of the terrorist threat facing Egypt demanded such strong measures. “The law includes deterrent procedures to face terrorism,” said one of al-Sisi’s strongest supporters, former MP Mustafa Bakri. He added that the new provisions would “help dry out the sources of terrorism and extremism.”