Egypt's Sisi warns of new crackdown against domestic 'enemies'

President Abdel Fattah Sisi, paying tribute to his assassinated top prosecutor, on Tuesday signaled the start of an even harsher security crackdown targeting “enemies” of his government.

At the funeral of Hisham Barakat, the prosecutor general who was killed Monday by a massive car bomb, the Egyptian president vowed to take unspecified steps to strengthen the hand of authorities, who already wield extraordinary powers to crush dissent.

“The hand of justice is tied by laws,” an angry-looking Sisi said, speaking outside the landmark Cairo mosque where funeral prayers were held. “We won’t wait on this. We will amend the laws in order for us to achieve justice.”

Flanked by mourners, the Egyptian leader added: “We are facing terrorism – there must be laws to confront this.”

It was unclear what steps the president might be contemplating. Egypt spent three months under a state of emergency in 2013, after police and soldiers killed hundreds of supporters of deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.

After the state of emergency was lifted, the government enacted a stringent law that banned unauthorized street protests. That has been used as a means of jailing both secular and Islamist opponents of the government, with many sentenced under it to lengthy prison terms.

In his remarks, Sisi hinted that a death sentence handed down against Morsi earlier in June could be expedited, though he did not mention the former president by name. Normally such capital cases take months or even years to wend their way through appeals and other delays.

“We are executing the law,” said the Egyptian leader. “If a death sentence is issued, then it will be carried out.” In addition to Morsi, hundreds of Brotherhood supporters and leaders have been sentenced to death, many of them in mass tribunals denounced by human rights groups and Western governments.

Egyptian officials and pro-government media outlets blamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood for Barakat’s assassination, although the group publicly condemned the attack. No other known organization has claimed responsibility, but an Islamic State affiliate known as Sinai Province had claimed responsibility for earlier killing of judges, and called for more attacks directed at the judiciary.

Barakat’s funeral took place under extremely tight security, and the atmosphere across the capital was tense, with armored personnel carriers dotting streets and squares. Television channels canceled programming to devote the day to hours-long coverage of the funeral.

Tuesday was a national holiday, honoring the second anniversary of the outbreak of mass protests that preceded Morsi’s removal from office by Sisi, then the defense minister. Sisi was elected to the presidency last May.

During the ex-military chief’s time in power, Egyptian security forces have battled a violent Islamist insurgency in the rugged Sinai peninsula, with hundreds of police and soldiers killed. The Brotherhood has publicly renounced violence, but the Sisi government consistently blames the banned movement for attacks, even those for which other groups claim responsibility.

Human rights groups have denounced sweeping rights abuses under Sisi, calling the climate more repressive than under longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak.

In the latest withering criticism by an international rights group, Amnesty International on Tuesday released a report accusing Egyptian authorities of arbitrarily imprisoning thousands, targeting young activists in particular. The report, entitled “Generation Jail,” said Egypt’s tough antiprotest law was wielded as a means of mass repression.

“By relentlessly targeting Egypt’s youth activists, the authorities are crushing an entire generation’s hopes for a brighter future,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa program.

Badr Abdelatty, a spokesman for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, called the report “baseless.” The London-based organization, he said, is "targeting us. They are targeting Egypt.”

In another ominous sign of the continuing threat to perceived critics, a Cairo-based correspondent for the Spanish newspaper El Pais reported that his embassy in mid-June had advised him to leave Egypt immediately because he had been targeted for arrest by Egyptian authorities.

The reporter, Ricard Gonzalez, who has since left Egypt, told the newspaper Daily News Egypt that he had written a book about the Muslim Brotherhood and that his paper had been critical of the Sisi government in editorials, but that he had adhered to normal journalistic practices and not engaged in any wrongdoing.

Egypt in 2014 handed lengthy prison sentences to three journalists for the news channel Al Jazeera English, including an Australian, Peter Greste, after accusing them of acting on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood. Greste was deported after spending more than a year in jail, and his two co-defendants are in the midst of a retrial.

Special correspondent Amro Hassan contributed to this report.

Follow @LauraKingLAT on Twitter for news from the Middle East

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


9:28 a.m.: This article has been updated with comment from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry.

This article was originally posted at 8:34 a.m.