Cairo - The jailing of three activists has triggered fears in Egypt of a return to the police rule that blighted the Mubarak era, eroding gains made in the march towards democracy.
On Sunday, a court jailed Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel to three years for organising an unauthorised protest in a verdict seen as the military-installed government broadening the crackdown on dissent.
It was the first such verdict against pro-democracy protesters since the July 3 overthrow of president Mohamed Morsi, whose Islamist supporters have borne the brunt of a deadly crackdown.
The three and Alaa Abdel Fattah, a vocal critic of the police and the military detained on similar charges, were at the forefront of the movement that toppled long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak in 2011, beginning Egypt's march towards democracy.
But analysts say gains achieved since then are threatened by the targeting of such men and by other moves that could signal the return of a police state.
Pursuing these activists "is a deliberate effort to target the voices who, since January 2011, have consistently demanded justice and security agency reform", Human Rights Watch's Sarah Leah Whitson said in a statement.
"Almost three years after the nationwide protests that brought down Hosni Mubarak, security agencies feel more empowered than ever and are still intent on crushing the right of Egyptians to protest the actions of their government."
Activists have lashed out at the authorities for arming themselves with a new law banning all but police-sanctioned protests, calling it an attempt to stifle freedom of expression - a core value in the fight that toppled Mubarak.
The interim authorities justified the overthrow of Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, as a response to massive protests against his turbulent year-long reign, which critics said was marked by power-grabs and economic mismanagement.
More than 1 000 people have died in a crackdown on Morsi supporters and thousands have been arrested.
The sentencing of Maher, Douma and Adel came days after Ahmed Shafiq, a premier under Mubarak, and the ousted strongman's two sons were acquitted of corruption.
That verdict underscores a sharp reversal of fortune not just for Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement, but for the pro-democracy movement itself.
'A significant step back'
"These practices are far from the rule of law. In fact these practices are of a police state enforced more brutally than ever," 14 Egyptian rights groups said in a joint statement.
James Dorsey, Middle East expert and senior fellow at the Singapore-based S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said: "The jailing of activists is a significant step back in what Egypt has achieved since the toppling of Mubarak.
"Yesterday's (Sunday's) verdict strengthens an atmosphere of caution, if not intimidation."
Dorsey said the regime is expanding the circle of people it is targeting beyond the Brotherhood.
"It is signalling that it is not looking at broadening the rights and freedoms of the people," he told AFP.
Activists say the way the four were arrested, why they were detained, the acquittal of Shafiq and Mubarak's sons and the midnight raid on an NGO last week to arrest Adel were all reminders of the Mubarak era.
"In principle (the regime) is retaining an autocratic rule. This coupled with the protest law essentially means there is very little public space to express dissent," Dorsey said.
Experts now question the government's intentions on the road map it announced to usher a democratic transition, the first step being the January 14 and 15 referendum on a new constitution, followed by parliamentary and presidential elections.
Sunday's verdict "is sabotage against the front that supports the road map," said Hassan Nafea, professor of political science at Cairo University.
He was referring to Maher's April 6 youth movement which initially backed the road map after Morsi's overthrow but on Sunday said it was withdrawing its support from the plan.
"Now many questions are raised. Will the elections be free and democratic? Is Egypt heading towards a democracy?" asked Nafea.
"The first test on the ground will be the referendum."
Dorsey remains hopeful, however.
"The military... does not understand that in Egypt...there has been a fundamental shift. No matter what happens, people are willing to question. The regime can't legislate away this fundamental shift," he said.