Egypt cracks down on Islamist movement

Almost daily arrests of Muslim Brothers in Egypt reflect the regime’s growing irritation with the inflammatory rhetoric of the opposition Islamist movement’s leader, analysts say.

“Mohammed Mehdi Akef upped the ante recently,” said Kamal Habib, a political analyst and former member of the Jihad Group, which was behind a wave of deadly violence in the 1990s.

The powerful Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader – a respected figure in Sunni Islam – had said earlier this month that he was ready to send 10 000 fighters to Lebanon to fight Israel alongside Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

A few days later, he lashed out at Arab leaders, accusing them of condoning Israel’s punishing offensive against Lebanon by not reacting strongly enough.


“If they weren’t Muslims, we would have killed them, because they are a bigger threat to the nation than Israel itself,” Akef had told an Egyptian newspaper.

“When the guide (Akef) says that he can control 10,000 armed men, it is tantamount to saying that there is a state within the state,” said Imad Gad, an analyst with the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

“And his words on assassinating Arab officials can only draw indignation,” he told AFP. “Lebanese President Emile Lahoud is not a Muslim, does that mean that the Muslim Brothers should kill him?”

The Muslim Brotherhood claims to be a non-violent organisation. It is officially illegal but has been tolerated by the authorities and its candidates secured a fifth of the seats in parliament in elections last year.

A few hours after the July 12 capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah was announced, Akef was one of the first to react and heartily congratulated the Shiite militants.

The Egyptian government had voiced criticism of Hezbollah’s cross-border raid, charging that the movement’s “adventurism” risked plunging the entire region into further chaos.

Egypt is one of only two Arab countries to have a peace treaty with Israel and the month-long war in Lebanon has revived popular and opposition calls for the government to reconsider its relations with the Jewish state.

In his latest weekly address on Thursday, Akef launched a fresh diatribe against the Jewish state and advocated a struggle “against the sons of Israel”.

Such comments, combined with the Brotherhood’s activities in parliament, “are an additional pressure on the government,” Kamal Habib said.

The authorities retaliated by launching a fresh wave of arrests targeting the Muslim Brothers.

On Friday, 17 members of the group were nabbed by police, including the movement’s number two, Mahmud Ezzat. The next day, four more members were arrested. Books and tapes were also seized.

A total of 38 members of the Brotherhood were detained in a week, bringing to 120 the number of the movement’s supporters currently behind bars, senior Brotherhood official Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh told AFP.

However, he ruled out any link between Akef’s comments and the campaign of arrests. “The regime has been panicking ever since our movement established a strong parliamentary presence through the elections,” he said.

But analysts argued that the Islamist leader’s declarations have presented the authorities with a perfect excuse to tighten the noose on the Brotherhood, by far Egypt’s most powerful opposition movement.

“Akef is only a symbolic figure for the Muslim Brothers, but he has no political weight. His presence and comments allow the authorities to crack down on those who are carrying out real action on the ground,” Gad told AFP.

“In this game of cat and mouse, the state regularly arrests the movement’s officials when it feels that the pressure is mounting… This was the case recently, when the Brothers held many political meetings,” Habib said.

“The regime had to intervene to tell them they had crossed a red line.”

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