Egypt extended an emergency law for two years on Tuesday while promising to limit its use, but analysts said it could still be used to stifle dissent and Washington urged Cairo to repeal the measure.
Ending emergency law has long been a call of government critics and it has been a rallying cry of protests in Cairo since April 6 that have been small by global standards but unusual in Egypt, where security quickly quashes dissent.
The state has long said terror and drug cases were the focus of the law, in force since the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat. Analysts argue this is a legal ploy that masks the law's violation of basic human rights.
Egypt's parliament, dominated by President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party, passed the extension with about three-quarters of the vote after intense debate led by the opposition.
About 200 protesters -- including former presidential candidate Ayman Nour, Muslim Brotherhood lawmakers and labour leaders -- gathered outside parliament before the vote.
"Down, down with emergency law. Down, down with military rule," chanted protesters, surrounded by hundreds of police.
The United States, a major donor and close ally, said it was "disappointed" over the law's extension and called on Egypt to replace it with a counterterrorism law that "protects the civil liberties and dignity of Egyptian citizens."
"We urge Egypt to complete its promised counterterrorism legislation on an urgent basis and repeal the State of Emergency," Robert Gibbs, President Barack Obama's press secretary, said in a statement. "We believe Egypt missed an opportunity today to signal its embrace of these universal values to the rest of the world."
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said, "Instead of cosmetic changes to the emergency law, the government needs to repeal it and restore the basic rights of its citizens,"
The group said Egypt had promised before to curb the law but had reneged. It said the law had been used against the Muslim Brotherhood, rights activists and bloggers.
Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif told parliament the extension request came with a commitment the government would only use it to deal with "the threat of terrorism and narcotics, and only to the extent necessary to confront these dangers."
"The emergency law will not be used to undermine freedoms or infringe upon rights if these two threats are not involved," he said in a speech before parliament voted.
'NO REAL CHANGES'
The new law does not allow the state to monitor any form of communication, censor media, close publishing and broadcasting outlets, or confiscate property, the resolution said.
Minister of State for Legal Affairs Moufid Shehab said the changes made the law similar to anti-terrorism legislation in other states and that an anti-terrorism act was in the works.
The opposition criticized the changes, saying the law still allowed indefinite detention and other measures critics say have been used to silence opponents of Mubarak, 82.
"There are no real changes or amendments to the emergency law, which has only ever been applied to control those with political opinion," former judge Mahmoud Khoudary said.
A group of 16 Egyptian rights groups said late last year that up to 14,000 people had been held without trial for up to 15 years although some had been granted release.
Those held under emergency law for crimes not related to "terrorism and narcotics" would be freed on June 1, parliament speaker Fathi Sorour said.
The extension runs until May 31, 2012, covering a period that includes parliamentary and presidential elections.
"There are no free and fair elections with emergency law in place," said Mohamed el-Beltagy, a Brotherhood parliamentarian.
Gamal Mubarak, the president's son and a senior official in the ruling National Democratic Party, previously told Egyptian journalists that the law should be applied with "certain controlling measures" on its use. He did not give details.
The president has not said if he will seek another six-year term in office. Many Egyptians believe that, if he does not run, his son, 46, might be levered into office.