The blinders have come off in Egypt

Special to The Times

Egypt's regime is seizing upon a moment of regional chaos and U.S. inattention to crack down aggressively on the country's most popular opposition group and shore up its hold on power, analysts here say.

In a bald push against the Muslim Brotherhood, the secular government in recent weeks has arrested hundreds of activists, unveiled new restrictions on political Islam and published a stream of anti-Brotherhood propaganda in the state-run media. More than 80 members were jailed on Thursday alone, Brotherhood officials said.

"This is the most brutal campaign against the Brothers since [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak came to power," said Amr Shobaki, a political analyst and Muslim Brotherhood expert at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

With the U.S. distracted by the war in Iraq and increasingly nervous about the regional rise of political Islam, Mubarak's regime appears free to squeeze the Brotherhood, which has long been officially outlawed -- though tolerated -- as an Islamist opposition force.

About 300 Brotherhood members have been imprisoned of late, including at least 100 senior activists. Some of the prisoners' assets were frozen by order of the government. Meanwhile, Egyptian officials and their media mouthpieces have accused the group of creating armed militias and receiving aid from Iran.

"The banned Muslim Brotherhood group is dangerous to Egypt's security," Mubarak told an Egyptian newspaper in a recent interview. If the group gets more powerful, "investments will stop and unemployment will increase.... Egypt will be completely isolated from the rest of the world."

Brotherhood activists have seen a severe shrinking of leeway since 2005, when they stunned the country by capturing one-fifth of the parliamentary seats in national elections. Back then, U.S. officials said the invasion of Iraq would deliver democracy to the Arab world, and Egyptian officials portrayed the empowerment of Brotherhood members as a necessary step toward democratization.

"Democracy cannot progress in Egypt without deciding what to do with them," a ruling party official said at the time.

But voting has empowered Islamists across the board: Hamas in the Palestinian territories, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iranian-backed Shiite parties in Iraq, in addition to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt is a major recipient of U.S. aid and a partner in a chilly, often contentious peace with Israel. Mubarak's struggle to appease his allies, hold on to power and tamp down the popular Brotherhood has long been considered a litmus test of Islamist strength across the region.

Not its first battle

Formed in the 1920s to advocate Islam and oppose secular and Western influence, the Brotherhood has a history of battling Egypt's governments. With its vast network of social services, it is deeply popular among religious Egyptians who regard it as a non-corrupt answer to cronyism and decadence. Mubarak has controlled Egypt for a quarter of a century, permitting virtually no dissent. As the one movement he hasn't been able to squelch, the Brotherhood is his nemesis. At the same time, it allows Mubarak and his inner circle to justify their repressive style of rule by claiming that the only other option is an Islamist state administered by the Brotherhood.

The elections played neatly into that argument. Many analysts here believe the Bush administration began to back away nervously from its democracy push when it saw Islamists winning at the polls across the Middle East.

Egypt's hand also has been strengthened by the instability in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, conflicts that have forced the United States to call on powerful Sunni allies in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan for diplomatic and political backing.

Nabil Abdel Fattah, an analyst at the Al Ahram Center, said the war in Iraq "has given more weight to the Egyptian foreign policy, which will give the government leeway in dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood."

"The regional and international atmospheres have become convenient," Fattah said. "Attacks against the group will continue in order to send strong messages."

A criminal court acquitted several prominent Brotherhood detainees last month, but they were immediately returned to prison while their cases were sent to military court.

In the most startling and incendiary charge, the Egyptian government has begun to accuse the Brotherhood of forming and training underground militias. In news stories short on details, officials say they have seized documents proving that the Brotherhood has secret cells dedicated to provoking civil disobedience.

The accusations mark a serious departure from the status quo between the regime and the Brotherhood, considered the only opposition group with any serious street popularity.

The old understanding was simple: The Brotherhood was officially outlawed but treated with grudging tolerance. The group didn't try to overthrow the government, and in exchange, the regime looked the other way when the movement slipped its leaders into parliament by running them as "independents."

Trying new strategies

Lately, the mounting pressure seems to have pitched the group into crisis, forcing it to cast about for ways to cement its foothold in the government.

Brotherhood leaders have taken pains to tailor their words for an intellectual, even Westernized, audience. Their speeches are carefully moderate, scrupulously tolerant and reverent toward democracy.

Seeking to calm fears that it would morph into another Taliban if it gained power, the group has reached out to Egyptian Christians. Seeking to ease concern about women's rights, it fielded a female candidate in last year's elections. (She lost.) And in an improbable move, a Brotherhood leader recently told The Times that the Islamic head scarf was a choice for women, not an obligation.

But the group's quest for credibility has been badly undercut by a series of public relations disasters.

Brotherhood lawmakers raged in parliament after Culture Minister Farouk Hosni told a female reporter that the head scarf was a sign of "backwardness" and "regression." They demanded that Hosni be replaced by someone who "respects the constitution and the Islamic Sharia," and they called unanimously for a no-confidence vote. Veiled women marched in protest; clerics issued a storm of condemnations.

Though the uproar eventually died down, it left feminists and secular-leaning Egyptians more leery than ever about the Brotherhood. The hubbub also fed the perception that Brotherhood lawmakers have neglected the issues of poverty and housing in favor of showy campaigns to advertise their Islamist credentials.

Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, a Brotherhood leader, defended the group's record in parliament. Members have done their best to chip away at a repressive government, he said at his office near downtown Cairo.

"The problem is, we work under a despotic, corrupt regime that doesn't really care about the members of parliament, that only cares about the ruling elite," Fotouh said.

Student demonstration

But the woes in parliament were nothing compared with the scandal that erupted at Al Azhar University, the storied seat of Sunni Muslim learning.

In December, young men from the Brotherhood's student group dressed in black and staged a military-style parade, complete with martial arts demonstrations, to protest restrictions on student political activities at Al Azhar. The action shocked a nation where public demonstrations have been banned since President Anwar Sadat was shot dead by soldiers in a 1981 military procession, and it fueled fear that the Brotherhood might have secret militias.

"This militia show defied the state and contradicted all the peaceful ideas the Muslim Brotherhood talks about," Fattah said.

Brotherhood leader Fotouh dismissed the students' spectacle as a meaningless display and said the government had inflated the event's importance to harm the group's reputation.

"They were just amusing themselves by putting on this show," he said. "The regime brought the media to cover it to use against the Muslim Brotherhood."

Despite the tension, or perhaps in reaction to it, the Brotherhood has announced that members are drawing up a political platform for a party. Although the regime is unlikely to consider giving the group a license, the move is widely seen as an attempt to continue the Brotherhood's push into mainstream politics.

"What we're really afraid of is to have a popular explosion in Egypt due to corruption, unemployment and poverty," Fotouh said. "If we don't work on rescuing our nation, this can happen."

megan.stack@latimes.com

Stack is a Times staff writer and Hennawy a special correspondent.

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