Egyptian activist arrested amid government crackdown on dissent

Cairo - A week in Egypt that campaigners said confirmed a return to Mubarak-era repression ended with the arrest of high-profile activist Alaa Abd El Fattah in a violent raid in which his wife said she was also assaulted.

Abd El Fattah has been targeted by every government since Hosni Mubarak's, and his incarceration has come to be seen as an indicator of the state of human rights in Egypt. His arrest followed the sentencing of 14 women and girls to 11 years in jail for taking part in an early morning pro-Mohamed Morsi protest in October, and a draconian protest law that rights groups say severely curtails the right to protest and which the UN says is "seriously flawed".

It also followed Thursday's shooting by police of a student protesting against the government at Cairo University, and the 15-day detention of a schoolboy for carrying a ruler bearing a pro-Morsi symbol, according to state media.

The arrest of Abd El Fattah, a secular activist also targeted by the administrations of ex-presidents Morsi and Mubarak, confirmed fears that the new government has widened its crackdown on pro-Morsi dissent to the non-Islamist activists who joined calls for his overthrow this year.

Until the past fortnight, when non-Islamist activists finally returned to Cairo's streets in significant numbers, the crackdown had largely centred on Morsi supporters and striking workers outside the capital. Abd El Fattah was arrested on suspicion of encouraging a demonstration on Tuesday outside the Egyptian parliament against the army being allowed to try civilians in military courts under Egypt's new constitution.

Under the new protest law, the protesters should have sought permission from the police – who arrested 79 in minutes. Twenty-four remain in custody, while 22 female protesters said they were beaten and harassed before being abandoned in the desert several miles south of Cairo.

After a warrant for his arrest was issued, Abd El Fattah announced that he intended to turn himself in on Saturday. In a statement translated by his aunt, the novelist Ahdaf Soueif, Abd El Fattah also argued that his arrest was political, and said "the legitimacy of the current regime collapsed" just five days after Morsi's overthrow, when soldiers and police killed 51 pro-Morsi supporters at a protest.

Abd El Fattah said he had been at a police station for eight hours on Tuesday night to lobby for other arrested activists, and concluded that the police had not detained him because they wanted to make a spectacle of his arrest. That came to pass on Thursday night – when, his wife Manal said, several armed policemen stormed their home shortly after 10am, beating both and taking their phones and laptops.

An arrest warrant was also issued for Ahmed Maher, the founder of the 6 April youth movement that spearheaded Mubarak's ousting. On Friday, he could not be reached by phone and his whereabouts were unknown. Earlier in the week, Maher had told the Guardian he was considering going into hiding, and compared Egypt's current climate of repression to the height of a campaign against him in 2008 "when I was hiding and trying to escape the police, and trying to make my wife and family safe".

While Egypt's police were a major target of the 2011 uprising, and their brutality continued unabated under Morsi, they returned to public favour after supporting Morsi's overthrow in July. It was a development that may explain why the security establishment felt free to harden their stance against all forms of dissent this week.

"The security sector feels it has the backing of large swaths of the public, who are exhausted by three years of upheaval, and who are now prepared to trade freedoms for stability," said HA Hellyer, an Egypt analyst for the Royal United Services Institute, a foreign affairs thinktank. "But I'm not so sure this kind of policy will be sustainable in the long term. The wider public expects the state to deliver on the economy and living standards, which the state is unlikely to be able to do – and if it feels the security sector is given a free hand without any observable benefits, the wider public could just as easily turn against that same apparatus."