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Banned Group Leads Dissent in Egypt

Students held demonstrations in Cairo on Feb. 14 to mark the 1949 assassination of Hassan Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. The group, the largest organized opposition force in Egypt, promotes rule by Islamic law.
Students held demonstrations in Cairo on Feb. 14 to mark the 1949 assassination of Hassan Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. The group, the largest organized opposition force in Egypt, promotes rule by Islamic law. (By John Moore -- Associated Press)

The group's arrival at the fore of the opposition's reform campaign has deepened public participation as well as political tensions throughout Egypt.

At a Brotherhood rally in downtown Cairo last Friday, about 2,000 men and women gathered in a hall as speakers denounced activists' arrests and ridiculed a new electoral law that allows for multi-candidate presidential elections beginning this fall. Under the rules, independent candidates effectively are not allowed to run, a measure commentators say is aimed at preventing the Brotherhood from participating.

Even that indoor rally was far larger than any mounted by socialist organizations or Kifaya, the opposition movement that had been in the vanguard of the anti-Mubarak campaign. Men crowded the ground floor of the hall, and veiled women filled the balconies. Chants of "Freedom, freedom! Where, where?" broke out. A speaker proclaimed: "Liberty is the hope of millions, based on the method of the prophet Muhammad." The crowd answered: "Jihad in the name of God! Death in the name of God is noble!"

At the front steps, a phalanx of Brotherhood members formed a human barrier against dozens of plainclothes government agents backed by hundreds of riot police in Darth Vader-style uniforms. Two dozen large vans stood by in case of mass arrests. Neither violence nor detentions occurred.

Abdul Fatah predicted that the group would enter a new phase of civil disobedience, including sit-ins and strikes, to obtain new political rights. The Brotherhood has said it especially wants to end 24-year-old emergency laws that restrict speech and assembly in Egypt. The government defends many of the recent arrests of Brotherhood members as justified under emergency laws that prohibit membership in banned organizations and grant police leeway to arrest people deemed to be plotting against the government.

One of the top Brotherhood operatives in Cairo, Essam Erian, was arrested at his home on May 6, said his wife, Fatima Fadl. At the time, rumors were swirling that he would run for president. Uniformed men in black ski masks sealed off Erian's street and told neighbors there would be a shootout, Fadl said.

"It was the usual thing," Fadl, whose husband has been sent to jail four times, said matter-of-factly. "They said he belonged to a banned organization trying to overthrow the government. We know the charges by heart."

The meeting on Friday night took place in the Physicians Union building under the guise of holding a syndicate meeting. Professional unions are under a degree of government control, and Brotherhood members are prominent in several of them. The arrangement encourages Brotherhood members to integrate into government structures. But in recent months, the syndicates have provided a cover for anti-government political activity.

"I am not here as a member of the Brotherhood guidance committee, but as a member of the Engineers Union," said Mohammed Ali Bishr, who presided at the meeting.

Opposition reform activity began two years ago with demonstrations against the Iraq war that metamorphosed into demands for an end to Mubarak's rule and competitive democratic elections.

In February, Mubarak proposed multi-candidate elections, but the main opposition forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, rejected constitutional changes that would limit participation to high-ranking members of officially sanctioned parties and would depend on monitoring by government-dominated committees. A referendum on the new rules is scheduled for Wednesday. The main opposition forces, including the Brotherhood, have called for a boycott.


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