Police fired tear gas Friday at Islamists demonstrating in Egypt in defiance of a new law banning unauthorised protests that has also angered secularists and led to a prominent blogger’s arrest.
Despite the law, the Muslim Brotherhood had vowed to go ahead with the protests it has organised after weekly prayers ever since Islamist president Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by the military on July 3.
On Thursday, the interior ministry warned against unauthorised protests.
And police arrested prominent blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, in a stark declaration of intent reminiscent of the autocratic rule of long-time president Hosni Mubarak, ousted in a popular uprising nearly three years ago.
Police used tear gas against hundreds of Morsi’s supporters who protested in front of a presidential palace in Cairo, an AFP reporter said, adding that he also heard gunshots.
Tear gas was also fired at dozens of Islamists in the capital’s Mohandessin district and on a key road leading to the Giza pyramids.
Protesters retaliated by throwing stones and burning tyres in Mohandessin, officials said, adding that similar protests were dispersed in the cities of Alexandria, Suez, Mahallah and Qena.
At least 60 people were arrested during the clashes, while eight were wounded, officials said.
Friday’s protests came two days after a court in the city of Alexandria sentenced 14 women to 11 years in jail and seven girls to a juvenile centre for participating in a violent pro-Morsi demonstration in October.
The harsh jail terms raised calls from rights groups for a presidential pardon.
Ali Awad, adviser to interim president Adly Mansour clarified Friday that “reports of a presidential pardon granted to these women are incorrect”.
“Any presidential pardon is possible only after a final verdict” is delivered, he said in an Arabic statement posted on the government’s official website.
The protest law requires organisers to seek authorisation three days ahead of any planned demonstration. The request can be denied if the protest is deemed a threat to national security.
Demonstrations at places of worship, or starting from them, are banned outright.
On Thursday, the interior ministry warned against “demonstrations that break the law without obtaining prior permission from security forces” and said “it will deal with these illegal activities firmly and decisively.”
Mansour issued the ban last Sunday and police have since enforced it, at times bloodily.
On Thursday, an engineering student was killed during an Islamist demonstration at Cairo University, health officials said.
Anger of Secular Supporters
To the anger of secular supporters of Morsi’s overthrow, police have taken action against all demonstrations, not just those organised by the ousted president’s backers.
Activists say the ban is hypocritical as the army justified the ouster as a response to mass demonstrations across the country against Morsi’s turbulent single year in power.
Pro-democracy groups have been particularly incensed by the arrest of Abdel Fattah, a prominent Morsi opponent who was ordered Friday to be held for four days of preventive detention.
He was arrested at his home in western Cairo, said his wife, Manal Hassan, who tweeted that she had been “beaten” during the operation by security forces late Thursday.
Judicial sources say Abdel Fattah is accused of holding an unauthorised demonstration, inciting people to riot, cutting off roads, beating a police officer and stealing his walkie-talkie.
Prosecutors had issued warrants on Wednesday for his arrest and that of fellow activist Ahmed Maher for taking part in an unauthorised demonstration the previous day.
Abdel Fattah was detained under Mubarak, under the military junta that ousted him, and again under Morsi.
On Friday, Maher, who has yet to be detained, tweeted: “Our dream was to live with dignity but the army, Mubarak’s corrupt regime and their allies… are fighting it with the arrests and crackdowns.”
Human rights groups too have lashed out at arrests of protesters opposing the disputed law.
“In the past few days, FIDH has documented several cases of arrests, detention and beating of protesters as well as cases of sexual harassment towards both men and women,” the International Federation for Human Rights said Friday.
Analysts say the mounting disillusion of veteran activists such as Abdel Fattah and Maher may strain the unlikely coalition of security hawks and liberal democrats installed by the military after Morsi’s ouster.
“Rather than consolidate the transition, it weakens it. It alienates even supporters of the government,â said Issandr El Amrani of the International Crisis Group.