Egypt Islamists in Hiding Ahead of Vote

Egypt Islamists in Hiding Ahead of Vote

A government crackdown has forced dozens of Muslim Brotherhood members into hiding ahead of local elections in Egypt, where the banned group has become the U.S.-allied country”s most powerful opposition force by agitating for Islamic law and democratic reform.

House-to-house searches and dawn ambushes by police this month placed behind bars about 750 prominent Brotherhood members, many of whom were hoping to run as candidates in the April 8 balloting.

The sweep has even drawn the ire of the Bush administration, which, though it did not name the Brotherhood, criticized the crackdown.

The U.S. is “concerned by a continuing campaign of arrests in Egypt of individuals who are opponents of the current governing party and are involved in the upcoming local elections,” White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters Wednesday.

Abdel Moneim Abdel Maksoud, the Brotherhood”s chief lawyer, said the police raids in past two weeks had forced Brotherhood members underground. Several prominent figures also switched off their mobile telephones, making them less accessible.

“It”s just unprecedented,” said Abdel Maksoud.

Abdel Gelil el-Sharnoubi, who runs the Brotherhood”s Web site, called Ikhwanonline, has not returned home since Tuesday, when security forces stormed his apartment at dawn and confiscated several books and CDs.

“I will not return home, at least not until this campaign calms down,” el-Sharnoubi told The Associated Press over the phone from an undisclosed location.

The Brotherhood renounced violence in the 1970s but was a forerunner for militant factions such as the Palestinian Hamas group. It has been banned in Egypt since 1954 but its members have run for and entered parliament in the past by running as independents.

The Brotherhood won a large and surprising victory in Egypt”s 2005 legislative elections, winning 88 seats in the 454-member parliament. The government then postponed 2006 local elections for two years, apparently fearing more Brotherhood gains.

This time around, with seats of 4,500 local city councils up for grabs, the odds appear against the Brotherhood.

Since registration for local balloting started March 4, few of the 10,000 Brotherhood hopefuls have managed to officially register as candidates, and hundreds have turned to the courts to appeal the government”s decision to deny their candidacies.

In the Brotherhood”s stronghold in the northern Nile Delta provinces, supporters of President Hosni Mubarak”s ruling National Democratic Party have been lining up in large numbers outside candidate registration centers, simply to delay Brotherhood candidates from registering, said Abdel Maksoud.

The lawyer said there were also reports of applications snatched away from Brotherhood candidates, beatings by plainclothes police and government-appointed election employees refusing to accept registration documents from Brotherhood members.

Mufid Shehab, government minister of legal and parliament affairs, dismissed allegations that the Brotherhood was being hindered, saying even NDP candidates have complained of difficulties in registration.

“The government is doing its best to remove those obstacles,” Shehab told the pro-government Al Ahram daily.

Egyptian officials had no comment Thursday on the U.S. criticism.

Mubarak has said that the Brotherhood is “a threat to Egypt and its economy” and has ordered that 40 of the group members, including three top officials, be tried before a military court, whose rulings cannot be appealed.

He also introduced amendments to Egypt”s constitution that ban political parties with religious affiliation and limit independents from running in elections — both sharp attacks on the Brotherhood. The amendments were approved last March and are now part of the constitution.

Local councils have long been dominated by Mubarak”s ruling party. Largely ignored in the past, the councils gained new importance after a constitutional amendment in 2005 required presidential candidates to obtain endorsements from 250 parliament and local council members.

Thus, the local councils could influence future presidential candidates.

Mubarak”s opponents have blamed his government”s crackdown on the Brotherhood partly to the fact that Washington has eased off somewhat on pressing its Mideast ally to make continued democratic reforms.

The U.S. Congress passed a bill late last year calling for $100 million in foreign aid to Egypt be withheld unless Egypt stops the smuggling of weapons into Gaza from the Sinai Peninsula, implements judicial reforms and curbs torture by police.

But on Tuesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced she had waived the withholding of American aid to Egypt. The development was seen as an overture to Cairo, whose help Washington seeks in calming the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.