EGYPT: Muslim Brotherhood battling pressures from within and without ahead of national elections

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Its members handcuffed and taken to prison cells, the Muslim Brotherhood is facing a sweeping police crackdown that appears certain to weaken the political standing of the nation’s largest opposition group in Sunday’s parliamentary elections.

More than 1,200 Brotherhood members and sympathizers, including eight candidates for parliament, have been arrested in recent weeks, the organization claims. Most were reportedly detained in the governorate of Sharkeya in the Nile Delta, an Islamist stronghold characterized by poverty and frequent tensions.


‘The regime is sending a message that there will be no elections,’ Saad Katatni, a leading Brotherhood lawmaker, said in a press conference Monday condemning government attacks on opposition voices.

Marches organized by Brotherhood members to support the group’s candidate in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria were broken up over the weekend by security forces using tear gas. The state-run MENA news agency reported that more than 100 Brotherhood members were arrested in the scuffles.

Although top members of the group claim the government is crushing their campaign efforts, Alexandria’s police chief told Al Shorouk newspaper that Brotherhood supporters had blocked the city’s traffic and violated electoral rules by chanting religious slogans, including its outlawed mantra, ‘Islam is the solution.’

The intimidation of opposition candidates and pressure against the banned Brotherhood, whose members run as independents, have led to criticism of the Egyptian government by the U.S. government and human-rights groups, including Amnesty International. Egyptian authorities bristled at a recent suggestion from Washington to allow international monitors to observe the elections.

The Muslim Brotherhood is the most potent force against President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party, which maintains that the organization embodies extremism. In 2005, despite arrests and purges, the group won a record 88 seats, or nearly 20%, of parliament. That is unlikely to be repeated as the Brotherhood, which years ago renounced violence, is running fewer candidates and is expected to lose at least half its seats.

Internal splits between conservatives and reformists have weakened the organization. Such divisions have jumbled its political message at a time when many Egyptians are seeking an articulate voice against corruption, inflation and the failed policies of the NDP. Instead, the group appears torn between those who want to remain politically active with an Islamist agenda and others emphasizing grassroots and social programs.

These rifts have been exacerbated by constitutional amendments limiting political freedoms and a national state of emergency in place since 1981. The Brotherhood’s battles against these impediments have highlighted the group’s inability to advance a religious and social legislative agenda to inspire its supporters.

‘Discrimination against Brotherhood candidates and their supporters begins from the first day we start applying for candidacy until the announcement of election results,’ said Manal Aboul, a female member of the Brotherhood running for a parliament seat in Cairo. ‘I’ve been lucky not to face a lot of police harassment, but my fellow Brotherhood candidates are having their conferences and marches unjustly aborted across the country.’

The apparent police campaign against the Brotherhood’s parliamentary ambitions comes one year ahead of the country’s presidential elections. Human-rights groups and opposition figures are concerned that the current crackdown is a harbinger of what will happen when Mubarak decides whether to seek a sixth term or step down.

‘Levels of human-rights abuses during November’s elections are seen as indicative of what may occur next year when new presidential elections will be held,’ said Bahieddin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

At least 17 people were killed in violent events throughout the country in the 2005 presidential elections.

-- Amro Hassan and Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo