CAIRO: Egypt's interim president Sunday banned public gatherings of more than 10 people without prior government approval, imposing hefty fines and prison terms for violators in a bid to stifle the near-constant protests roiling the country.
The new law is more restrictive than regulations used under the rule of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, overthrown in Egypt's 2011 uprising that marked the start of unrest in the country. Rights groups and activists immediately denounced it, saying it aims to stifle opposition, allow repressive police practices and keep security officials largely unaccountable for possible abuses. ''The law is giving a cover to justify repression by all means,'' said Bahy Eddin Hassan, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, one of the local groups that had campaigned against the law.
The military-backed government first floated the law in October. Interim President Adly Mansour approved a slightly amended version Sunday, which removed a proposed ban on sit-ins and a draft portion criminalising ''insulting the state.''
The law requires three-day prior notice for protests. It grants security agencies the right to bar any protests or public gatherings, including election-related meetings of political parties, if they deem it a threat to public safety or order. Protesters can appeal the decision, but the law doesn't force judges to rule ahead of scheduled protests.
The new law also bars gatherings in places of worship, a regular meeting place for all protests in Egypt and one heavily used by Islamist groups. The law also says the police have the right — following warnings — to use force gradually, including the use of water cannons, tear gas and clubs.
Rights groups say the law also gives police unrestricted use of birdshot to put down protests, omitting an article that prohibited the use of force in excess.
Penalties in the law range from seven years in prison for using violence in a protest. It calls for one year in prison for covering the face in a country where many women wear full-face veils. It calls for a similar prison sentence for protesting in or around a place of worship. The law sets fines of $44,000 for being violent at a protest. It sets fines of $1,500 for protesting without a permit, a hefty sum in Egypt, where the minimum monthly salary for public employees has finally been raised to 1,200 Egyptian pounds ($175).
The law comes 10 days after authorities lifted a three-monthlong emergency order that granted security forces sweeping powers. Rights groups and political forces campaigned heavily against the law. ''The law is labelled one that regulates protests rights, but in essence it is regulates the repression of the right to protest,'' Hassan said.
Hassan said government officials and supportive media outlets promoted the law as means to halt protests by supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, who was removed by the military in July.
Morsi's supporters hold near-daily protests that often turn violent, though the size of the demonstrations have dropped due to an intense security crackdown targeting Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.
Shaima Awad, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood's political party, said protests would continue, calling the new law ''nonsense.'' ''How can I notify them three days before the protests and give the names of organizers? It would be like handing myself in,'' Award said. The law ''unifies revolutionaries afresh. ... We can now all agree that the military authorities are trying to strangle any voice that says no. We won't accept and others won't accept that either.''
A similar law to regulate protests was hotly contested when Morsi was in office. It never passed.
Gamal Eid, a civil rights lawyer, said Mansour's approval of the law ''wasted a right that was seized through much bloodshed'' in the past three years. ''I would have imagined that as a temporary president he would have issued a law that grants rights instead of denies them,'' Eid said.
Hassan said the protest law, along with a proposal allowing for civilians to be tried by military courts and other legislation aimed at combating terrorism, ''are all steps to reinforce the basis of the police state that was threatened after the January 2011 uprising.'' ''The law can't be viewed separately from what happens in other domains,'' he said. ''The worst is yet to come.''
Meanwhile Sunday, a public prosecutor referred Mubarak to a new trial on charges of embezzling some $18 million worth of state funds to build and renovate family homes. The prosecutor also referred two of Mubarak's sons, two government officials and two contractors to stand trial with the ex-leader. No date for the trial has been set yet. Mubarak already faces a retrial for his alleged role in the killing of hundreds of protesters during the 2011 uprising against him and separate corruption charges.