CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian authorities on Wednesday took a heavy hand against both Islamist and secular opponents, handing down heavy prison sentences to a group of female supporters of the ousted Islamist president — including teenagers as young as 15 — and ordering the detention of two dozen secular activists, all for participating in protests.
The moves mark what critics say is a bolder determination by Egypt's military-backed government to silence dissent, continuing a crackdown on Islamists since the military's July 3 ouster of President Mohammed Morsi, while suppressing secular activists who supported his removal but also accuse the new leadership of restoring a system as autocratic as Morsi's toppled predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.
Images from the courtroom in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria showed the 21 young female defendants in white head scarves and white prison uniforms, handcuffed in the defendants cage. Among them were seven teenagers aged 15 and 16, who were sentenced to prison terms until they turn 18. The rest — most aged 18 to 22 — were sentenced to 11 years in prison.
A day earlier brought other harsh scenes: Security forces beating and dragging female secular activists on the ground during a protest outside parliament. Police detained 14 women, then drove them in a van through the desert where they were dropped off on a remote road in the middle of the night in a move to intimidate them, several of the women said.
The crackdown is rearranging Egypt's political map after months when authorities were focused on crippling Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood. The resulting crisis threatens to fragment the loose coalition of liberal and secular groups that supported the military in its removal of Morsi.
Hundreds of secular youth activists protested Wednesday in downtown Cairo against the government. "Those thinking the authoritarian pharaonic style works will find it doesn't anymore," said one protester, Laila Soueif. "There will be a third wave of the revolution much more violent than before. We are witnessing a turning point."
At the center of the crisis is the law issued this week banning any protests or public political gatherings of more than 10 people without a prior police permit, imposing stiff fines and jail terms for violators. Authorities say the law is needed to rein in continuing pro-Morsi protests and restore stability in a country rocked by constant unrest since the 2011 ouster of Mubarak.
In the face of the criticism, the Cabinet issued a strongly worded statement saying it is determined to implement the law with "all firmness and force ... so freedom doesn't turn to chaos." It linked it to a "war on terrorism" — pointing to the Brotherhood protests and violence by Islamic militants in Sinai.
"There are elements that want to spread domestic chaos in a desperate attempt to hurt the prestige of the state," it said.
The group of Islamist women were arrested on Oct. 31 while holding a demonstration in Alexandria demanding Morsi's reinstatement and denouncing the military coup. They were convicted on multiple charges, including holding a demonstration, sabotage and using force.
Six other Brotherhood members were sentenced to 15 years in prison for inciting the demonstrations.
"We thought they will get a month or something but we were shocked with the 11 years," defense lawyer al-Shimaa Ibrahim Saad said.
Haitham Abu-Khalil, an Islamist rights advocate, said the verdicts aimed to "break the protests and show that there is no red line."
Meanwhile, the prosecutor general's office ordered 24 people arrested in Tuesday's secular activists' protest to be held for four days for questioning on possible charges of violating the protest law.
In a statement, the prosecutors office accused the protesters of "chanting antagonistic slogans against the state" and refusing to end their rally. It said the demonstration "disturbed traffic and affected citizens' interests," terms mentioned in the protest law as violations justifying police action. It also accused them of attacking a police officer and taking his telephone.
The prosecutor also ordered the arrests of Alaa Abdel-Fattah and Ahmed Maher, two top activists, on suspicion of inciting others to break the protest law, the state news agency MENA said.
The Interior Ministry said on its Facebook page that it had given the protesters permission to hold their Cairo rally Wednesday — an apparently unilateral decision suggesting that the ministry wanted to avert a repeat of Tuesday's scenes of violence.
But in Alexandria, security forces fired tear gas and dispersed a small demonstration of around 100 people in front of a courtroom to denounce the new law. Witnesses said police struck just moments after they gathered, before they even raised their banners.
Tuesday's demonstrations — each by around 100 secular youth activists — took place in downtown Cairo and then outside the parliament building to denounce a proposed constitutional amendment allowing military courts to try civilians.
Amateur footage from the scene showed police beating up protesters and tearing their clothes while dragging others by the hair. The videos corresponded with AP reporting. Activists said that female protesters were sexually assaulted.
The images were reminiscent of the days of Mubarak, when police at times focused on humiliating female protesters — as well as crackdowns under the military when it took power under his fall. In one case, police broke up a protest against military rule, half-stripping a female protester and stomping on her chest.
Prominent activist Mona Seif, who was among the female protesters detained Tuesday, said in a video clip posted on social networking site that protesters were "dragged, beaten up, pushed inside (police) trucks by force" before they were taken on a long ride to the desert. Finally, police dropped them off alone in a remote part of the desert.
"They want to terrorize us," she told reporters.
Some supporters of the government warn that the new law will increase opposition and push secular activists into a common cause with Islamists.
The Islamist coalition supporting Morsi sought to reach out to secular activists Wednesday, with a statement denouncing "brutal repression" and saying the "youth of the revolution stand united."
The spokesman of the Muslim Brotherhood-led coalition, Diaa al-Sawi, said he will contact youth activists to coordinate rallies.
The youth groups, which joined the massive anti-Morsi protests that preceded his ouster, quickly shot down any coordination.
"A message to the Muslim Brotherhood: we will not put our hands in the hands of those who betrayed and hijacked the revolution," said Hossam Moanis, spokesman of one activist group, the Popular Current.