Egypt's justice ministry has issued a decree allowing military police and intelligence officers to arrest civilians suspected of crimes, restoring some of the powers of the decades-old emergency law which expired just two weeks ago.
The decree applies to a range of offences, including those deemed "harmful to the government," destruction of property, "obstructing traffic," and "resisting orders."
Several of those provisions would allow the military to detain peaceful protesters. Rallies in Tahrir Square routinely disrupt traffic, for example.
The controversial order was drafted earlier this month, but was not announced until Wednesday.
It will remain in effect at least until a new constitution is drafted, according to the ministry.
Members of parliament voted on Tuesday to appoint a constitutional assembly, but the process of drafting the document could take months.
Adel al-Mursi, the head of military justice, told reporters that "the decision fills a legal vacuum," according to the AFP news agency.
Mohamed Beltagy, a member of parliament from the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, called the decree a "military coup" in an interview, and said the measure was not discussed in parliament.
Human rights organisations were quick to criticise the decision, which they said confirmed that Egypt was a "military state".
"Several of the crimes included in the decree are actually rights, such as the right to freedom of expression against ruling powers or established laws, demonstrations and strikes," said a statement issued by 15 Egyptian rights groups.
The 31-year-old state of emergency, imposed in 1981 after Anwar Sadat was assassinated, was finally allowed to expire at the end of May.
It granted wide-ranging powers to former president Hosni Mubarak's security forces, including the right to detain suspects without trial.
Amr Hamzawy, a liberal member of parliament from Cairo, said in a statement on his Facebook page that the ruling simply "reproduced" the emergency law.
"[It] reproduces the emergency law using new tools and threatens the state of law, for it gives military intelligence and military police powers of judicial execution in crimes committed by civilians," he wrote.
The decree comes just days before the country's presidential runoff, which pits Mohammed Morsi, the Brotherhood's candidate, against Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister in Mubarak's government.
It also comes a day before two crucial court rulings. The supreme constitutional court will decide on Thursday whether to expel Shafiq from the race because of the so-called "political isolation" law, which bars ex-regime officials from running for public office.
The court will also rule on whether parliament is unconstitutional; a lower court found that some provisions of the electoral law - allowing political parties to compete with independent candidates for some seats - might have violated the constitution.
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|William A. Cook|