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Egypt enacts sweeping anti-terror laws in wake of June car bombing (+video)

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Asmaa Waguih/REUTERS

(Read caption) A child points to a picture of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as he poses for picture while people gather to celebrate in Tahrir square in Cairo, Egypt, August 6, 2015.

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Egypt has enacted a swath of new laws that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi says are necessary to fight the country's growing insurgency. Critics and human rights groups say the laws are a throwback to those under prior President Hosni Mubarak, and will be used to "crush all forms of dissent."

BBC News reports that the new laws include special courts for use against terrorism suspects, as well as sentences of 5 to 7 years for creating websites that spread terrorist propaganda; up to 10 years for joining a terrorist group; and up to 25 years for financing such groups. The laws also include expanded fines ranging from 200,000 to 500,000 Egyptian pounds ($25,500 to $64,000) for media that contradict official government reports.

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The Telegraph adds that the new laws also provide legal protections to Egyptian officials who use the proportionate use of force "in performing their duties."

President Sisi had promised in June to implement the new laws after Egypt's prosecutor general was killed in a car bombing in Cairo in late June. Sisi blamed that attack on the Muslim Brotherhood, the political bloc that led Egypt for two years ago under President Mohamed Morsi. Mr. Morsi was deposed in a 2013 coup by then-Army chief Sisi, and his party declared a terrorist organization. The Brotherhood has denied responsibility for any violence against the government, including the June car bombing.

Analysts say that attack was likely the work of one of the other Islamist insurgency groups in Egypt that are mostly active in the Sinai Peninsula. Those groups include Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which has declared allegiance to the self-declared Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. 

But while the new laws are nominally meant to fight such groups, human rights groups argue that they are more likely to be used as blunt tools of repression. Mohamed Elmessiry, Egypt researcher at Amnesty International, said last week that the laws (then under discussion) would take Egypt "back to the Mubarak era and the 30-year state of emergency that helped push Egyptians to the streets in 2011," reports Reuters.

Said Boumedouha, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty, added in a statement that, “The counterterrorism law is a clear knee-jerk reaction to consolidate the authorities’ iron grip on power in order to counter recent security threats. While the Egyptian authorities have an obligation to maintain security they should not trample all over human rights in the process.”

Amnesty notes that the laws define "terrorist act" very broadly, to include “disturbing public order and social peace,” “harming national unity and national economy,” and “impeding the application of the provisions of the constitution and national laws.”

Some critics worry that the new law could be used to target journalists, who are already in the sights of Egyptian prosecutors. Most notably, three Al Jazeera reporters – Canadian national Mohammed Fahmy, Australian journalist Peter Greste, and Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed – were arrested in 2013 and charged with supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and airing false footage meant to damage national security. The trio was found guilty and each sentenced to at least seven years in prison. Egypt's highest court later ordered a retrial after finding the initial proceedings were unsound. 

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Mr. Greste has since been deported, while Mr. Fahmy and Mr. Mohammed remain on trial in Egypt. Both are currently out on bail and awaiting the new verdict, which was most recently delayed to Aug. 29.