The arrest of senior Muslim Brotherhood leader is a serious blow to the supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim brotherhood. (Khaled Kamel/AFP/Getty Images)

Essam el-Erian, one of top remaining Muslim Brotherhood leaders, arrested in Egypt

Authorities have arrested one of the most senior Muslim Brotherhood figures still at large after the July ouster of Egypt’s elected Islamist president, the latest blow to a once-formidable movement that has been crippled by a government crackdown.

The deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, Essam el-Erian, was detained in a police raid on a villa in an eastern Cairo suburb early Wednesday, authorities said.

Erian was wanted on charges of inciting violence in the wake of the coup against President Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood stalwart. Erian did not resist arrest, security officials told the state-run Middle East News Agency. The Interior Ministry released several photos that showed the fugitive Brotherhood leader smiling and flanked by police.

Essam el-Erian, deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party, smiles after being detained by security forces in Cairo, on Oct. 30, 2013. (Reuters)

According to MENA, which quoted security officials, authorities staged dozens of raids in at least eight provinces over the past two months before arresting Erian outside the capital. Even as the movement’s higher-ranking officials were swept up, Erian remained on the run, taunting the military-installed interim government with defiant video messages that he released to the pan-Arabic news network Al Jazeera from his various hideouts.

“Instead of protecting the nation’s borders, [the military] are now involved in internal politics,” Erian said in a message aired Oct. 8. “They are begging other countries for help . . . and they stand in front of every student who goes to protest” the coup.

Erian has been taken to the high-security Tora prison outside Cairo, where a number of other Muslim Brotherhood officials also are imprisoned, state media reported.

“This is a continuation of the systematic arrest of all the national figures who oppose the coup,” said an Islamist lawyer who is coordinating the legal defense for Erian and other detained Islamist leaders. “But the arrests of Muslim Brotherhood leaders will not affect the opposition to the coup on the street.”

The lawyer spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the government crackdown on Islamist opponents.

Erian’s arrest comes five days before Morsi, who is being held incommunicado, is scheduled for trial on charges that he incited violence and ordered the killing of demonstrators outside the presidential palace in December. Morsi will be the second former Egyptian president to be tried in just two years; the other is Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted after a popular uprising in early 2011 and tried on charges related to the killing of protesters.

The swift detentions and prosecutions of Morsi and his supporters mark a stunning turnaround for the Brotherhood, which suffered decades of repression during Mubarak’s rule but quickly rose to power after his ouster.

Capitalizing on the internal discipline and grass-roots reach that were cultivated during the years of persecution, the Brotherhood clinched key electoral victories in parliamentary and presidential elections in 2011 and 2012.

Morsi surprised the country two months into his term when he ended a turbulent period of military rule by dismissing the defense minister and army chief of staff in August 2012. A series of ill-advised political moves, including the announcement in November that he would retain unprecedented legislative and executive powers to push through a controversial constitution, soured the public on his presidency.

Morsi and his advisers then failed to resuscitate Egypt’s ailing economy or halt the country’s spiraling violence, spurring mass protests that paved the way for the military to step in and orchestrate a coup.

Sharaf al-Hourani contributed to this report.