Egypt’s president expanded the powers of the country’s armed forces Monday to enable the prosecution of civilians in military courts, a move that rights activists fear will intensify an already searing government crackdown on dissent.
The measures by President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi give the military even broader reach than during the decades under Hosni Mubarak, who applied relentless pressure on perceived opponents until his ouster in early 2011.
Sissi’s decree allows the military to try civilians for a wide variety of crimes, including destroying public property and blocking roads.
Egypt’s constitution already grants the army the ability to try cases that directly involve a military officer or an army installation. But Monday’s edict extends the military’s jurisdiction to cover attacks on “vital” institutions such as power plants, oil fields and bridges.
The move by Sissi, a former defense minister who rose to power as a military strongman, follows a devastating attack last week on an army checkpoint in the Sinai Peninsula, where militant groups have flourished in recent years.
The suicide car bombing killed more than 30 soldiers, making it the deadliest attack on Egyptian army personnel in decades. Government officials said Monday that the law is necessary to ensure the safety of citizens and that it will remain in force for two years.
But military trials in Egypt are often held in secret, and judges mete out swift verdicts that can be challenged only before a military appeals court. Activists say civilian lawyers have trouble navigating the military justice system, leaving defendants without proper legal counsel.