Its members handcuffed and taken to prison, the Muslim Brotherhood is facing an extensive police crackdown that appears certain to weaken the standing of Egypt’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 says. 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 Muslim Brotherhood lawmaker, said in a news conference Monday condemning government attacks on opposition voices.
Marches organized by movement 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 allege that the government is crushing their campaign efforts, Alexandria’s police chief told Al Shorouk newspaper that Muslim 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 group, whose members run as independents, have led to criticism of the Egyptian government from Washington and human rights groups, including Amnesty International. Egyptian authorities bristled at a recent suggestion from the U.S. government to allow international monitors to observe the elections, calling it interference in an internal matter.
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%, in the 454-member parliament. That is unlikely to be repeated as the organization, 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 also weakened the group. The 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 Brotherhood appears torn between those who want to remain politically active with an Islamist agenda and others emphasizing grass-roots and social programs.
These rifts have been exacerbated by constitutional amendments limiting political freedoms and a national state of emergency in place since 1981 after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat by Islamic militants. The Muslim Brotherhood’s battles against these impediments have highlighted its 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 group running for a parliamentary seat in Cairo. “I’ve been lucky not to face a lot of police harassment, but my fellow Brotherhood candidates are having their political gatherings and marches unjustly aborted across the country.”
The apparent police campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood’s parliamentary ambitions comes one year ahead of the country’s presidential election. Rights groups and opposition figures are concerned that the crackdown is a harbinger of what will happen when Mubarak decides whether to seek a sixth term or step down, possibly in favor of his son Gamal.
“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 nationwide in Egypt’s 2005 presidential election.
Hassan is a news assistant in The Times’ Cairo Bureau.