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CAIRO — Egyptian security forces fired tear gas today to disperse hundreds of Islamist demonstrators defying a draconian new law restricting protests, which has drawn widespread criticism from democracy advocates and the international community.
Since a popularly backed military coup ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July, his supporters have been staging near-daily protests calling for his reinstatement, with today's weekly Muslim prayers a key time for mobilizing. The rallies have often descended into street clashes with security forces or civilians.
In an effort to quash pro-Morsi rallies, which have persisted despite a heavy security crackdown, the military-backed government issued the law Sunday, banning political gatherings of more than 10 people without a police permit.
Instead, the law has sparked new protests by Egypt’s camp of secular activists, who had been largely muted since the ouster of Morsi, whom they opposed. The past week, security forces have forcefully broken up several protests by secular activists in Cairo. On Thursday, a student was killed when police put down a march by Islamists from Cairo University.
The Interior Ministry, responsible for the police, warned on Thursday that security forces will deal “firmly” with “illegal” protests.
The turmoil comes as a 50-member panel amending the Islamist-drafted constitution passed last year under Morsi prepared to vote on Saturday to approve a final draft. The draft will then be put to a nationwide referendum, expected in January.
The pending vote could further fuel a backlash in the streets. The Islamists reject the entire amendment process and are likely to launch protests against it. Secular activists, meanwhile, are likely to hold their own protests, since they oppose articles in the draft that increase the power of the military and the president.
Today's clashes erupted when security forces moved to disperse the scattered protests organized by Islamists across the country. An Interior Ministry aide, Sayyed Shafiq, said at least 60 “rioters” were arrested.
In Cairo’s twin city of Giza, police fired volleys of tear gas to disperse Morsi supporters, according to footage of the scene from Associated Press TV. Protesters burned tires to defuse the tear gas. Anti-Islamist residents joined security forces in chasing the Morsi supporters to side streets, hurling stones and glass bottles at them.
In a western Cairo neighborhood, police fired tear gas as protesters hurled stones and burned tires, security officials said. In eastern Cairo, police fired water cannons and tear gas on demonstrators near a presidential palace. Similar scenes took place in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and the canal city of Suez.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.
In one protest in eastern Cairo, Islamists chanted, “Down with all killers, down with Abdel-Fattah” referring to Egypt’s army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the coup against Morsi. They held banners with the emblem of a hand raising four fingers, a symbol commemorating the violent dispersal by security forces of an Islamist sit-in in mid-August in which hundreds were killed.
“We don’t care about the protest law whatsoever,” said Ashraf Abdel-Wahhab, a 42-year-old demonstrator who took part in a Cairo protest with his wife and eight children. “This is not the first time they attack marches or kill protesters. It’s just a cover that they’re using.”
Secular activists did not hold rallies today, aiming to avoid association with the Islamists, in part because they saw Morsi as equally undemocratic as the new government. Activists would also likely be tainted as pro-Brotherhood by media supporting the military, at a time when a large swath of the public remains eager to crush Islamists.
“Friday is the Brotherhood’s day,” Mohammed Adel, a leading member of the secular activist group April 6, told the AP, explaining why his camp was not in the streets.
“Even if we had the same cause, we will not protest with them,” he added, referring to the Islamists.
Secular activists, including those who led the 2011 uprising that ousted longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, accuse the new government of giving free rein to police abuses and military power that the anti-Mubarak uprising had aimed to end. They say the new protest law aims to silence all dissent against the government.
Late Thursday, police arrested one of the most prominent activists, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, for inciting protests. His wife, Manal Bahy Eldin, also an activist, said police beat her as they raided their home to seize Abdel-Fattah, a blogger who rose to prominence in Egypt’s 2011 revolution.
Today, prosecutors ordered Abdel-Fattah detained for four days for investigation, according to Mohammed Abdel Aziz, a member of his legal defense team.