Egyptian crackdown keeps Muslim Brotherhood in check

The Egyptian government prevented Muslim Brotherhood leaders from travelling outside the country and prevented them from running in trades and student unions elections in the latest crackdown since the outlawed group won a fifth of parliament seats a year ago, said a senior MB official.

Mohamed Habib, the Muslim Brotherhood deputy chairman, said that about 100 of the group members are still in jail after successive waves of arrest this year.

Last year elections proved that the Muslim Brotherhood is still the largest opposition force in Egypt. But so far, the group has been unable to build on its electoral success to wrest any concessions from the regime.

Despite its popularity, the Muslim Brotherhood has been careful to avoid provoking confrontations with the authorities. The government, in turn, has refrained from trying to break up the group.

Instead, the regime has sought to contain the influence of the Islamists, i.e the Muslim Brotherhood, through frequuent and sporadic arrests of leaders and members. They are usually released after holding them for several months. Mr Habib blames the US administration as well as the regime for the “bad political climate” in Egypt.

The MB leader dismissed the constitutional amendments proposed by President Hosni Mubarak on Sunday, calling them “disingenuous”, and accused the Bush administration of giving the 78-year-old president- in power since 1981- the green light to block genuine political reforms.

The group, Mr Habib pointed out, expects Mr Mubarak’s amendments to include changing electoral laws to exclude independent candidates, and doing away with judicial supervision of elections. The MB candidates stood as independents in last year elections.

“The regime is at odds with all sectors of society, with the judges, students, and the unions,” he said.

“It has postponed local elections, extended emergency laws. It has been rigging student and workers’ union elections. In these conditions it is not possible to imagine that anything good will come of them (the constitutional amendments),” he said.

Created in the 1920s, the Brotherhood has spawned associated Islamist groups across the Middle East, including Hamas in the Palestinian territories. Through charity, social work and occasional control of professional and trade associations, it has extended its influence throughout the Egyptian society. But the movement has struggled to translate its influence into political power. Each time it has shown its muscle in elections, it has been repressed. Since Hamas shocked the world by winning polls in the Palestinian territories in January, the Brotherhood has been forced again into defensive.

Mr Habib said the US needed Egypt as an ally in the region more than ever, and had, therefore, given the “green light to the regime to repress the Muslim Brotherhood”.

“Our fight is not with the regime,” he continued, adding that “the real battle is with people. If we can motivate them to shake off their apathy, and move in a positive direction, we will succeed.”

The movement renounces violence. However, the government accuses it of spawning more militant groups, and claims that its interest in democracy will be short-lived.

“They say we want elections only once to take power and keep it,” Mr Habib said. “But if those elections are backed by strong public opinion, that will hold us to account and they will be able to remove us from power if we deviate from the right path.”

He saw that violent confrontation to achieve the movement’s aims would be counterproductive.

“No matter how long it takes, the main thing is to preserve stability of the country,” he said, echoing an approach that has, ironically, also been central to Mr Mubarak’s 25-year rule.

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