- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 26, 2013

CAIRO — Egypt’s police fired water cannons Tuesday to disperse two protests by dozens of secular anti-government activists in Cairo, the security forces’ first implementation of a controversial new law forbidding protests held without a permit from authorities.

The unrest points to the growing backlash against the law, which imposes heavy restrictions on protests, among the non-Islamist political factions that rallied behind the military’s ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

Now some in the loose coalition are growing impatient with signs the military-backed interim government is taking the country down a more authoritarian path. Many non-Islamist activists say the law aims to silence any dissent ahead of a referendum on an amended constitution and other key elections. Those activists oppose provisions in the revised constitution entrenching greater powers for the military and the president, and curtailing rights to free trials and assembly.

The government says the law is needed to restore security and rein in near daily protests by Morsi supporters demanding his reinstatement. The Islamist rallies have often descended into bloody clashes with security forces, leaving hundreds dead since Morsi’s ouster in July. The government’s message has a strong resonance among a public weary of constant protests and unrest.

Rights groups and activists say the law, issued Monday by the interim president, will stifle Islamists and non-Islamists alike. They say it is harsher than restrictions on protests during the rule of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in 2011 in an uprising calling for greater democratic freedoms.

Announcing the breakup of the protests, a police spokesman said defiance of the law would not be tolerated.

“This behavior is a challenge to the state and its prestige. The protesters want to embarrass the state. But the state is capable,” Maj. Gen. Abdel-Fattah Othman told private CBC TV. “Any gathering without a permit will be dealt with according to the law.”

In Tuesday’s first protest, around 100 largely secular activists rallied downtown to commemorate an activist — Gaber Salah, known by the nickname “Gika” — killed by police a year ago. Police quickly deployed, and an officer told the gathering they had no permit, said activist Rasha Azab, who was among the protesters.

He gave two warnings before the police fired water cannons, sending the protesters running into side streets, she said.

“They don’t want anyone in the streets any more. Not us, not the Islamists,” said Azab.

Hours later, a similar group sprung up outside parliament, protesting moves by the panel amending the constitution to preserve a Morsi-era article that allows military trials of civilians. “Down with military rule,” they chanted.

Police trucks and armored vehicles deployed outside the parliament in a usually busy boulevard in central Cairo. Again, police gave a warning before firing water cannons, participants in the rally said. The melee outside forced the suspension of a session of the constitutional panel, held in the parliament building.

At least 35 prominent activists were detained by police and held in the parliament grounds, said Mohammed Abdel-Aziz, a lawyer who was among those detained.

Azab was also among those held in parliament. Earlier, she said she was briefly held by police in the first protest, but an officer let her go to tell her colleagues that no protests will be allowed without permits.

“I told him: You want me to take a permit after January 2011?” she said, referring to the start of the anti-Mubarak uprising.

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