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.
Mohammed Habib, the Brotherhood's deputy supreme guide, said that by offering an alternative, peaceful outlet for political Islam, "We have protected Egypt from waves of violence that possibly would have attracted thousands of young people."
Despite the ban, the Brotherhood has provided clinics, youth camps and other services that have won the organization support among the poor and provided a civic model for the armed Islamic movements Hezbollah and Hamas. The Brotherhood draws support among Egypt's middle class through its strong presence in technical and professional unions.
Brotherhood members are divided on how to react to the crackdown. In the Brotherhood's headquarters in a nondescript neighborhood of Cairo, Habib said he counseled calm.
"We don't want to be provoked, as plainly the government wants to do," said Habib. Like most Brotherhood leaders, Habib presented the avuncular demeanor, clean-shaven face and Western attire of a middle-age engineer or doctor. Short-sleeve shirts with plastic pocket protectors are popular among the Brotherhood.
"We do not function by an action and reaction policy," Habib said.
But some younger members are chafing. "The group remains silent and eventually we get rounded up," said Abdel Monem Mahmoud, a 27-year-old blogger.
Mahmoud courted his own arrest in August by publishing the name of a security official who Mahmoud alleges tortured him during his imprisonment in 2003 on a charge of belonging to the Brotherhood. "Silence does not stop the arrests," Mahmoud said. "We have to expose them because they are unfair and unjust, they are a bunch of thieves. Our long silence led to what we are facing today."
The government is also writing its crackdown into law. Constitutional changes pushed through by the government after the Brotherhood's strong showing in 2005 shut out its members in upper house elections this June. Next year, the government promises to present a new anti-terrorism code that the Brotherhood expects to be used for further crackdowns against it.
The administration's moves are "designed to basically institutionalize the campaign against the Brotherhood and make sure it will not be allowed to either compete with the ruling party or threaten Mubarak's new successor," said Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.
Mubarak's age makes the matter urgent. Rumors that the Egyptian leader was dying or dead swept the country in recent months, forcing him to leave his Mediterranean villa for impromptu televised tours of a factory and office park.
Egyptians cite U.S. pressure in 2005 as the stimulus for a short-lived flourishing of democratic opposition. That year, President Bush challenged Egypt in his State of the Union address "to show the way toward democracy in the Middle East." Since making peace with Israel in 1979, Egypt has been the No. 2 recipient of U.S. foreign aid.
Mubarak allowed other candidates to challenge his 2005 reelection bid. Egypt's fragmented secular opposition groups made tentative alliances with one another, and with the Brotherhood.
By 2006, with Hamas's victory in Palestinian elections leading U.S. officials to have second thoughts about democracy in the Middle East, and the U.S. military presence in Iraq growing ever more troubled, American priorities in the Middle East shifted again, from promoting democracy to maintaining allies.
That year, Egypt picked off the secular opposition through arrests and intimidation. Ayman Nour, who came in a distant second to Mubarak in the 2005 presidential election, was sentenced to five years in prison on what supporters said were trumped-up charges of forging signatures on campaign documents. The third-place finisher in the race also was jailed but released.
Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Egypt's best-known democracy advocate, went into exile this summer, saying he feared arrest after urging Bush to tie the more than $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt to the release of Nour and to democratic reforms.
The government is concentrating now on the Brotherhood, and on civil society.
Last month a judge ordered a year's hard labor for the editors of four leading opposition newspapers, saying they had made the ruling party, Mubarak and his son Gamal appear dictatorial. A judge last Monday ordered three more opposition journalists imprisoned for two years on grounds that their coverage had impugned Egypt's justice system.
One of the editors, whose newspaper reported on the pervasive but unproven rumors about Mubarak's ill health, is to stand trial in criminal court on Monday. The government last month also closed an Egyptian human rights organization that had been active in exposing allegations of police torture. This spring, it shut a labor organization involved in what rights groups said has been the biggest wave of strikes in Egypt in a half-century.
Egypt's leaders "feel that democratization means that they will leave their chairs and leave their positions, and they are not able to pay this cost," said Hafez Abu Seada Abu Se'da, of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.
Habib denied that the Brotherhood had any desire to lead the country after Mubarak. "Presidential candidacy is not on our agenda," he said.
But at the height of the arrests in August, Habib allowed himself to relish the suggestion that Mubarak's age meant Egypt would soon face a succession. "Maybe months!" Habib said, and laughed.
Special correspondent Nora Younis contributed to this report.