Egypt's government has extended the powers of military police and intelligence agents to allow them to arrest civilians for a wide range of offenses, just days before the runoff for a president who will replace the country's military rulers as head of state.
Prominent human rights lawyer Gamal Eid and other rights activists said the decision, announced Wednesday, was tantamount to declaring martial law and offered concrete evidence of what was long suspected - that the military wants to extend its grip on power after handing executive authority to an elected president by the end of this month.
Gen. Adel el-Morsi, the head of military judiciary, said the decision by the Justice Ministry - part of a government appointed by the ruling military council - provides "legal cover" for the presence of military forces in the streets, 16 months after they were deployed during last year's uprising.
"There is a need to put in place a law to regulate the presence of army troops ... to enable them to secure presidential elections or carry out security sweeps to arrest fugitives and outlaws," he told Al-Ahram daily's website.
That statement suggests anxiety about new turmoil breaking out on Egypt's already chaotic streets should ousted authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak's former prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, be elected in the runoff on Saturday and Sunday. Shafiq is facing Islamist candidate Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that Mubarak's regime repressed for many years.
The military has pledged to turn power over to the elected, civilian government once a new president is named. But even then, the military is intent on protecting its powerful position, including its widespread economic interests.
In a joint statement, 16 rights groups said the decision "doubles doubts" over the military's pledge to transfer power to a civilian authority and reinforces suspicions that the "transfer of power will only be phony and won't prevent the military from remaining a major player in political life."
Military officials said the arrest powers are a temporary measure intended to fill a security vacuum that arose from the uprising, when the police collapsed and disappeared from the streets after masses of protesters vented their hatred for the force.
"The police force has not recovered completely, and security is not back," Sayyed Hashim, a former military prosecutor, said in a TV interview.
The decision covers at least 11 crimes, many of them are related to the right to demonstrate, including resisting authorities, halting traffic, damaging buildings and harming government security internally and externally.
The extension of arrest powers would remain in effect until a new constitution is in place. But like most things in Egyptian political life these days, that process too is fraught.
On Tuesday, parliament voted on a 100-member panel to draft the document, but liberals who were the driving force behind the uprising boycotted the session. An earlier attempt to name the panel collapsed because of opposition from liberals who challenged the panel in courts. Both times they charged that Islamists were unfairly dominating the procedure.
Activists warned the new arrest powers recreate Egypt's notorious emergency law, which expired at the end of May after 31 years in force. That hated law gave police broad powers to detain and arrest people without charge and was abused to persecute the old regime's political enemies.
"This is a declaration of martial law, as if we are living in a banana republic," said Eid, the rights lawyer. He said parliament has the legislative power to thwart a ministerial decision. However, according to Egypt's interim-constitution, the parliament is crippled because the ruling generals must endorse any legislation for it to take effect.
Human Rights Watch researcher Heba Morayef called the decision "shocking" and said "it is basically trying to confirm the fact that the military can continue to be involved in law enforcement ... in the absence of emergency laws."
Even after the emergency law expired, the generals who took power after Mubarak was deposed in last year's uprising have rounded up protesters, referring them to military tribunals known for swift and harsh rulings. Many rights activists equate the military police with Mubarak's much-hated security forces. The military police have been accused of torturing detainees, carrying out "virginity tests" on female protesters, and beating up protesters in the streets.
The decision comes a day before rulings by the country's highest court that could dissolve the Islamist-dominated parliament and even cancel the weekend runoff, scenarios that would throw the democratic transition into limbo.
The Constitutional Court is expected to rule whether the law organizing parliamentary elections late last year was unconstitutional. If the court agrees, the current legislature - where the Muslim Brotherhood is the biggest party with nearly half the seats - would be disbanded and Egyptians would have to go back to the polls to choose a new one.
In a second case, the court will decide whether Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister before he was ousted in February 2011, can stay in the race or not. The court is to rule on the validity of a "political exclusion" law passed by parliament barring many former regime figures from running for office.
If it backs the law, Shafiq would have to drop out and the presidential election process may have to start over from scratch. Thousands of protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square every day for weeks have been demanding the law be enforced to exclude Shafiq.
Dozens of activists went on a hunger strike in the past days and are organizing protests in front of the court to demand it disqualify Shafiq, who they deride as a "feloul" or "remnant" of the old guard. A heavy security presence including troops with shields and helmets was deployed to protect the court.
The Muslim Brotherhood, now Egypt's most powerful political group, is threatening to stage rallies if Shafiq wins - a victory that would undoubtedly bring charges of vote-rigging.