CAIRO Egypt's president passed a law on Sunday making it illegal to hold demonstrations without the approval of the police and banning protests in places of worship, a move rights groups condemned as a blow to political freedom.
As the law was being announced by state media, thousands of anti-government protesters were on streets in Cairo and other cities, as they have been regularly in the nearly three years since a popular uprising ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
The number of protests and the scale of political violence have grown since July when the army removed elected Islamist President Mohamed Mursi following mass protests against his rule.
The bill signed into law by interim President Adli Mansour requires people to secure police permission for protests at least three days in advance, said presidential spokesman Ehab Badawi. It allows security forces to disperse illegal protests with water cannon, tear gas and birdshot.
It imposes jail sentences of up to seven years and fines of up to 300,000 Egyptian pounds ($43,600) upon protesters who carry weapons, explosives, ammunition or fireworks, wear masks or block roads, Badawi said. People who organise protests without permission will be fined between 10,000 and 30,000 Egyptian pounds.
"This law is not against peaceful protests, as the state welcomes peaceful protesting and is keen to secure those who do it," said Badawi.
Organisers of gatherings for the purposes of elections would need police permission 24 hours' in advance, said Badawi.
The law came as a 50-member committee prepared to vote on an amended constitution that will be put to a referendum expected in coming months. Parliamentary and presidential elections are due next year.
"This is quite dangerous ahead of elections - in normal times also, but (particularly) ahead of elections," said Ziad Abdel Tawab of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, adding it could disrupt public meetings including debates and rallies.
'LEGAL COVER FOR SUPPRESSION'
Rights groups and Islamists had urged Mansour to reject the draft presented to him by the cabinet installed after the army overthrew Mursi.
"The law gives a legal cover for suppression," said Talaat Marzouk, the Nour Islamist party's deputy head for legal affairs.
A joint statement issued on Friday by 19 Egyptian rights organisations said the law sought to criminalise all forms of peaceful assembly and gave the state free hand to disperse peaceful gatherings by force.
"The goal of this (law) is to ban protests in the streets which is something Egyptians have earned by their effort and blood," activist and lawyer Gamal Eid said.
He said the law was unconstitutional and contravened an international convention for civil and political rights.
"In addition to that, there is no law or power or tank that can stop the anger of the Egyptian people in the streets as long as the demands of the revolution are not met," said Eid.
Thousands of supporters of Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated in Cairo and in several other cities, marking 100 days since security forces crushed two pro-Mursi sit-ins in Cairo, killing hundreds.
The Brotherhood has faced a harsh security crackdown since Mursi's removal. Thousands have been arrested and its senior leaders jailed.
Police fired teargas to disperse some of the demonstrations on Sunday.
"What they fear most is peaceful protests, people's opinions and in particular the opinions of students, so it's only natural that they will try to restrict these opinions from being heard with a repressive law such as (this)," said a student taking part in a Brotherhood demonstration at Cairo University.
But many Egyptians are weary of the political turmoil that has driven away tourists, blocked roads and hammered investment.
In downtown Cairo, a man embraced the rhetoric of the government, saying that "blocking streets and damaging property" is "not expressing an opinion, it's terrorism."
($1 = 6.8877 Egyptian pounds)
(Additional reporting by Seham Eloraby, Ali Abdelatti, Shadia Nasralla, Ahmed Tolba and Asma Alsharif; editing by Michael Georgy and Tom Pfeiffer)