Cairo Moving More Aggressively To Cripple Muslim Brotherhood

Mohammed Habib, a top leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, said that by offering a peaceful outlet for political Islam,
Mohammed Habib, a top leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, said that by offering a peaceful outlet for political Islam, "We have protected Egypt from waves of violence that possibly would have attracted thousands of young people." (Photos By Tara Todras-whitehill For The Washington Post)
By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 1, 2007

CAIRO -- After imprisoning or prodding into exile Egypt's leading secular opposition activists, the government is using detentions and legal changes to neutralize the country's last surviving major political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Brotherhood leaders and rights groups contend the government is clearing the stage of opponents in politics, civil society and the news media ahead of the end of the 26-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak, who is 79. Egyptians widely expect the transition to be tense and that Mubarak's son Gamal will be a top contender.

"Tyranny has reached unprecedented limits from any previous regime," said Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the supreme guide, or highest leader, of the Brotherhood, which the government has outlawed for decades but allowed to operate within narrow limits. "This is insane tyranny."

Egyptian officials point to the group's high level of organization and violent past, and insist it remains the most dangerous force in Egypt. "The Muslim Brotherhood represents the framework for future violence," said Mohamed Abdel-Fattah Omar, a lawmaker from the ruling party and a former head of the state security apparatus.

In August and September, police raided the homes and meetings of Brotherhood leaders, putting behind bars five of the 12 officials in the group's decision-making guidance council. Two have since been released for health reasons.

Prosecutors have also accused two Brotherhood members of parliament of seeking to revive the group, and police jailed 14 mid- and top-level managers vital to communications in an organization that some Brotherhood officials estimate includes 200,000 members. Egyptian security forces have jailed more than 1,000 rank-and-file members over the past year, according to the Brotherhood; 167 remain in prison.

The architects of the Muslim Brotherhood's surprise success in 2005 elections -- when members, running as independents, shocked Mubarak's National Democratic Party by winning one-fifth of the seats in the lower house of parliament -- now sit in prison.

They include Essam el-Erian, head of the movement's political division, and one of the group's most moderate and yet most outspoken leaders. "What we want is to try our best toward changing this regime peacefully, by lawful and constitutional means," Erian said a few weeks before his arrest. "We may absorb a kick, but we will come back more powerful."

Police arrested Khayrat el-Shater, the group's third-ranking leader, chief strategist and main overseer of its finances, late last year. Soon after, Mubarak declared the Brotherhood a threat to national security.

Egyptian authorities charged Shater and 39 other Brotherhood members with money-laundering and financing a banned group. After civilian courts cleared the men, Mubarak ordered the cases moved to military courts.

The Brotherhood was founded in 1928, the year Mubarak and Akef were born, and the government banned it in 1954. Egyptian administrations have alternated between trying to co-opt the group and trying to crush it. Imprisonment during crackdowns in the late 1960s helped radicalize Ayman al-Zawahiri and others, who split from the group in the 1960s and 1970s to start violent movements including Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which later merged with al-Qaeda.

Since the 1970s, the Brotherhood has sought to position itself as a moderate force in Egypt's political life. Its leaders say Egypt should be a civil rather than religious state.

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