Arrests in Egypt Point Toward a Crackdown

Heavily armed police officers woke the Said family at 2 a.m. with pounding on the front door. The parents dressed quickly as their two children drifted between sleep and fear. The police seized books, documents and computer equipment. They blindfolded the father, Abdellatif Muhammad Said, 40, and took him away.

The raid occurred about two weeks ago in a tidy, two-bedroom apartment that also served as an office for a family business that promoted an unconventional view of Islam over the Internet. The Saids and their relatives concluded that they had run afoul of the state-sanctioned vision of faith.

That may well be true. But in the weeks since Mr. Said disappeared into the netherworld of Egyptian jails, it has also begun to appear that his case may have as much to do with efforts to challenge the governing party’s monopoly on power, as it does with holding a view of Islam that many Muslims consider heretical. The arrest appears part of a zero-tolerance policy toward anybody who challenges the status quo, political analysts said.

In recent days, hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the popular outlawed political movement, have been arrested. A request was denied to free from prison the onetime presidential candidate and political dissident Ayman Nour. A prominent member of Parliament who helped form a new political party was forced out in connection with a years-old financial case.

The state-controlled press has virulently attacked Egyptians who attended a conference in Doha, Qatar, to discuss democracy. And elections on Monday to select members of the upper house of Parliament were described by independent organizations as manipulated to ensure that the governing party won a majority of the seats — a charge the government denies.

“They don’t want any divergence, they don’t want any noise,” said Mohamed Sayyid Said, deputy director of the government-financed Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “They don’t want anyone to talk. They don’t want anyone to disagree.”

Government officials declined to respond to requests for information about the arrests or the recent series of events described by analysts as a political crackdown.

Ezzat Darag, a member of the governing National Democratic Party bloc in Parliament, defended the government’s actions. “The general atmosphere is freedom, freedom, freedom,” he said. “You can’t open up all the way. There has to be a ceiling of respect.”

A prominent religious scholar at the Islamic Research Institute at Al Azhar also defended the arrests on religious and political grounds. “They didn’t arrest them because of their ideas alone,” said the scholar, Sheik Abdel Moety Bayoumy. “These ideas constitute a movement that has political goals and can cause sedition. Politics always starts with an idea, and sedition starts with ideas.”

The nexus between democracy, religion and Mr. Said is his cousin — Amr Tharwat. Like Mr. Said, Mr. Tharwat contends that Islamic law should be based solely on the Koran, not the sayings and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, known as the Hadiths. The men support a secular government and seek to promote peace and tolerance among faiths, though their rejection of the Hadiths is considered radical within the faith.

Mr. Tharwat attended the democracy conference in Doha. He worked for the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, headed by Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who is Egypt’s most renowned democracy advocate. Mr. Tharwat was arrested on the same night as Mr. Said.

“Their goal was to disrupt, derail and intimidate,” Mr. Ibrahim said. “The government’s obsession is now to create conformity with its ideas.”

Mr. Tharwat was supposed to oversee Ibn Khaldun’s poll monitoring operation on Monday, for the election of 88 members of the upper house of Parliament. The governing party, which won 69 of the 71 seats that were decided without a runoff, said the election was fair and open.

Some voters said, though, that it appeared that ballot boxes were already full when the polling places opened in the morning. The government denied the charge, but Mr. Ibrahim said some of his monitors confirmed the accusation.

The Interior Ministry did not respond to questions about Mr. Tharwat’s arrest. But another critical link is Mr. Ibrahim. Once imprisoned in connection with his work to promote democracy, he is again a focus of state ire because he attended the Doha conference and because he met, briefly, with President Bush in Prague. The government-controlled press labeled him an agent of the United States and Israel for those actions. Mr. Ibrahim’s essays have appeared on Mr. Said’s Web site.

President Hosni Mubarak is furious with Mr. Ibrahim, so much so that officials suggested that he leave the country for a time to allow the president to cool off, said Mr. Ibrahim and other people familiar with the president’s thinking who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue.

But on the fourth floor of the Said family house, there is no talk of Mr. Ibrahim or politics, only talk of Mr. Said and Mr. Tharwat and their possible whereabouts. The authorities have been referring to the family as Koranists, a derogatory label in the context of the faith, suggesting allegiance to a cultlike organization.

The head of the family and the force behind the movement in Egypt is Mr. Said’s half brother, Ahmed Sobhy Mansour, a former scholar at Al Azhar. He was granted asylum by the United States.

For the last year he has paid his relatives about $150 a month to update his writings and to post them on the Web as part of what he calls “an effort to reform Islam from within.”

Mr. Said’s wife, Naisa, has waited with her two children, Baher, 4, and Amira 3, for any news about her husband and his cousin. “Ours is a school of thought, not a movement or a group,” she said. “We want to fight the extremists from within the Koran. Now I am worried they will take me and my children, too.”