CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's police fired water cannons Tuesday to disperse dozens of activists protesting police brutality in Cairo, the security forces' first implementation of a controversial new law forbidding protests held without a permit from authorities.
The unrest points to the growing backlash against the law, which imposes heavy restrictions on protests, among the secular political factions that rallied behind the military's ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
Now some in the loose coalition are growing impatient with signs the military-backed interim government is taking the country down a more authoritarian path. Many non-Islamist activists say the law aims to silence any dissent ahead of a referendum on an amended constitution and other key elections. Those activists oppose provisions in the revised constitution entrenching greater powers for the military and the president, and curtailing rights to free trials and assembly.
The government says the law is needed to restore security and stability and rein in near daily protests by Morsi supporters demanding his reinstatement. The Islamist rallies have often descended into bloody clashes with security forces, leaving hundreds dead since Morsi's ouster in July. The government's message has a strong resonance among a public weary of constant protests and unrest.
But rights groups and activists say the law, issued Monday by the interim president, will stifle Islamists and non-Islamists alike. They say it is harsher than restrictions on protests during the rule of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in 2011 in an uprising calling for greater democratic freedoms.
"They don't want anyone in the streets any more. Not us, not the Islamists," said Rasha Azab, a political activist who took part in Tuesday's rally that was broken up by security forces.
International criticism of the law has also been growing.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement Tuesday that the law raises concerns because it does not meet international standards and will not move Egypt's transition forward.
"We urge the interim government to respect individual rights and we urge that the new constitution protect such rights," she said.
Skeptical of both Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood group and the military, activists who spearheaded the 2011 uprising against Mubarak have been organizing limited but rare non-Islamist protests in recent weeks demanding justice from police officials who killed hundreds of protesters during the tumultuous past three years. The activists have openly clashed with the military before — when generals directly ruled Egypt following Mubarak's fall — and then with the Brotherhood during Morsi's one year in office.
On Tuesday, around 100 secular protesters held a rally in downtown Cairo to commemorate the death of protester Gaber Salah, known by the nickname "Gika," at the hands of police a year ago. Police quickly deployed to the area.
As protesters gathered, a police officer came out in front of an armored vehicle and told the crowd that they had no permit, the activist Azab said. He gave two warnings before the police fired water cannons, sending the protesters running into sidestreets, she said.
Azab said she was briefly detained, and an officer told her that while he has the right to arrest her, he was letting her go to tell her colleagues that no protests will be allowed to take place without permits any more.
"I told him: You want me to take a permit after January 2011? He said: This is what the moment calls for," she said. "They want to bring us back" to before 2011.
She said for the authorities, the secular activists — though smaller in numbers — "are more of a nuisance than the Brotherhood because we don't have a central leader like the Islamists' guide to tell us what to do."
A police spokesman, Maj. Gen. Abdel-Fattah Othman, told the private CBC station that the rally was dispersed because organizers had not sought a permit from security officials as required by the new law.
"This behavior is a challenge to the state and its prestige. The protesters want to embarrass the state. But the state is capable," Othman told the station. "Any gathering without a permit will be dealt with according to the law."
Security forces had heavily deployed across town where Morsi supporters had planned to hold a rally later Tuesday.