CAIRO – CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's powerful security ministry warned that its forces could open fire on pro-democracy protesters if necessary, media reports said Monday, drawing criticism from groups calling for political reform in a parliamentary election year.
An Interior Ministry adviser delivered the warning at a parliamentary hearing in which opposition lawmakers questioned him over the use of force against protesters at an April 6 demonstration. Several dozen protesters managed to briefly assemble in front of parliament to call for constitutional reforms and fairer presidential elections before plainclothes security men knocked some over and dragged them away.
Calls for change have grown louder in the lead-up to November's legislative elections. Presidential elections are due in 2011, and Hosni Mubarak has not said whether he will run in an attempt to extend his nearly three decades in power.
The Interior Ministry official, Hamed Rashed, told the parliamentary session that it is legal for security to use force, including firing live ammunition against protesters if they attack the police, as he accused demonstrators of doing. His comments were published by the independent dailies Al-Masry Al-Youm and Al-Shorouk.
Hamdi Hassan, a lawmaker from opposition Muslim Brotherhood who initiated the hearing, confirmed Rashed's comments and said the opposition takes them "very seriously."
"We were surprised to find that the Interior Ministry is explaining its position by saying that the law permits it to use force to break up illegal protests, even by using live ammunition, according to an ancient law from the days of British colonialism," Hassan said.
Hassan said two ruling party lawmakers supported the ministry's use of force and that one of them accused the ministry of being "too lenient" and urged it to fire at protesters.
Ahmed Abou Akrab, one of the ruling party lawmakers who railed against the protesters, said their comments were taken out of context.
He said the protesters are misled and should not challenge security orders.
"If the security is attacked by firearms, it should respond to defend itself," said the lawmaker, himself a former police officer.
Spontaneous protests in Egypt are illegal and a police permit is required for any gathering of more than five people. Rallies are often violently broken up and protesters detained.
During parliamentary elections in 2005, security forces fired rubber bullets to keep voters from reaching polling stations, killing 14 people.
"The language of threats is very real. We take it seriously," Hassan said. "These threats are even more serious because we are entering a political season before elections. It should be a political feast, not a season to use force."
Amnesty International condemned what it called "clear incitement" by the ruling party lawmakers.
"The parliament should ask for accountability, not condone brutality," the group said.
A demonstration was planned for Tuesday to protest the lawmakers' remarks.