CAIRO — Egyptian security forces rounded up at least 28 activists Tuesday and dispersed protests with beatings, water cannons and teargas in the first enforcement a new law that limits public demonstrations.
The aggressive application of the law just two days after it was decreed by Interim President Adly Mansour was a signed that the government intends to suppress any criticism. Unlike the harsh crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood that has cost hundreds of lives since the military ousted President Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist, in July, police on Tuesday targeted many of the country’s best known secular and liberal dissidents, many of whom had helped spur the demonstrations that ended the rule of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Protesters said they defied the new law’s requirement that they have to get government permission for any gathering of more than 10 people. The police response turned much of downtown into a street battle.
Chanting “The police are thugs” and “Down, down with military rule,” the protesters held yellow signs that read “No Military Trials” as they gathered in front of the Shura Council, where drafters of a new constitution were gathered. Almost immediately, a McClatchy reporter saw riot police besiege protesters who were standing on the sidewalk.
Firefighters fired water cannons at the protesters while riot police beat them, dragging many away.
Police hurriedly grabbed as many protesters as they could, squeezing them into a narrow space between two police armored vehicles stationed in front of the Shura Council, where they were kept until they were transferred to the prosecutor’s office.
The officers didn’t differentiate between male and female protesters. Both were brutally beaten. Some of the protesters’ clothes were ripped during the arrests.
Later, at least 14 female and four male detainees were released. One of them reported via Twitter that police took them from the police station, put them in a van and released them in the desert outside Cairo.
“Beatings, insults, harassment and throwing in desert is part of the new demonstrations law?” Salma Said tweeted.
Nazly Hussein, an activist who was among those arrested at the protest, tweeted that police dragged protesters to the ground and physically and sexually assaulted them.
Under the new law, organizers must apply to police for permission at least three days before holding any protest, march or public meeting. The police have the right to cancel or change the place of any gathering. Violators who gather without police permission face a jail sentence of up to seven years and a fine of 300,000 Egyptian pounds, about $42,800
Members of the constitutional assembly suspended their session when the clashes began. Some said they would refuse to participate in further meetings until the detainees were released.
Among the secular groups that called for Tuesday’s protest were the April 6th Youth movement and the No to Military Trial movement, which opposes a proposed constitutional article allowing civilians to be tried by military courts.
Ahmad Maher, a founder the April 6th group, said that police called him Monday reminding him of the new law.
“We don’t acknowledge the law, we find it unfair,” Maher said. He said his group had intentionally not sought permission for its protest. “If we submitted an application, that means that we approve the law,” he said.
Maj. Gen. Abdel-Fattah Othman, an Interior Ministry official, told the private ONTV television channel that the protesters were treated the way they were because they’d violated the law, not because they were opposed to the government.
“They are defying the state and its prestige. The protesters want to embarrass the state,” Othman said.
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @aminaismail