Egypt’s government has extended the powers of military police and intelligence agents to allow them to arrest civilians for a wide range of offenses, just days before the runoff for a president who will replace the country’s military rulers as head of state.
Prominent human rights lawyer Gamal Eid and other rights activists said the decision, announced on Wednesday, was tantamount to declaring martial law and offered concrete evidence of what was long suspected — that the military wants to extend its grip on power after handing executive authority to an elected president by the end of this month.
General Adel el-Morsi, the head of military judiciary, said the decision by the Justice Ministry — part of a government appointed by the ruling military council — provides “legal cover” for the presence of military forces in the streets, 16 months after they were deployed during last year’s uprising.
“There is a need to put in place a law to regulate the presence of army troops ... to enable them to secure presidential elections or carry out security sweeps to arrest fugitives and outlaws,” he told al-Ahram daily’s Web site.
That statement suggests anxiety about new turmoil breaking out on Egypt’s already chaotic streets should former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s former prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, be elected in the runoff tomorrow and Sunday.
Shafiq is facing Islamist candidate Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that Mubarak’s regime repressed for many years.
The military has pledged to turn power over to the elected, civilian government once a new president is named. However, even then, the military is intent on protecting its powerful position, including its widespread economic interests.
In a joint statement, 16 rights groups said the decision “doubles doubts” over the military’s pledge to transfer power to a civilian authority and reinforces suspicions that the “transfer of power will only be phony and won’t prevent the military from remaining a major player in political life.”
Military officials said the arrest powers are a temporary measure intended to fill a security vacuum that arose from the uprising, when the police collapsed and disappeared from the streets after masses of protesters vented their hatred for the force.
“The police force has not recovered completely, and security is not back,” Sayyed Hashim, a former military prosecutor, said in a TV interview.
The decision covers at least 11 crimes, many of them are related to the right to demonstrate, including resisting authorities, halting traffic, damaging buildings and harming government security internally and externally.
The extension of arrest powers would remain in effect until a new constitution is in place.