Egyptian opposition reels under fresh state crackdown

The two forces lined up facing each other inside Ain Shams university campus, the space between them shrinking until the moment of engagement.

When they both charged, scores of pro-government students, with the help of plainclothes security personnel, claimed a swift victory. They pelted their unarmed rivals of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s biggest opposition group, with twisted pieces of metal, empty bottles and Molotov cocktails.

Ibrahim Sobhi was one of the first casualties, suffering a cut in his back, according to witnesses and a video of the protest filmed by Brotherhood loyalists. Eighteen of his colleagues, all wearing orange bandannas and chanting “God is great,” were also injured, activists and security sources said.

“It was a battle,” said Mohamed Suleiman, who filmed the incident with his video camera.

It was also the latest evidence of a widespread government crackdown on all forms of opposition, dispelling expectations of more political freedoms that surfaced before Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential elections in 2005, analysts say.

The Brotherhood students were part of a “free” student union elected after its members were barred from vying in the official polls in universities nationwide. The government says the new body is illegal and has accused the banned Islamist group of instigating last week’s clashes at Ain Shams University.

“The regime has engaged in disputes with all parts of society: students, university professors, journalists and judges,” said Mohamed Habib, the Brotherhood deputy leader. “It does not have the honest desire for political reform.”

The government prevented Brotherhood members from running in trade union elections and it has been skirmishing with the Judges Club since the club made accusations of vote rigging in favor of government candidates in the 2006 parliamentary polls.

Ayman Nour, who came a distant second to President Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 elections, is in jail after conviction on forgery charges he says were fabricated. A military court last month sentenced Talaat Sadat, another opposition lawmaker, to a year in jail for insulting the armed forces.

Two journalists known for their anti-government stances

stand trials for libel, and anti-government bloggers are subject to random periodical arrest.


Some analysts say Egypt’s rulers have tightened their grip on power, calculating that President Bush is desperate for friends in the Middle East to help in Iraq and to counter electoral gains by Islamist groups.

The Brotherhood did well in last year’s parliamentary elections in Egypt and its Hamas allies won control of the Palestinian legislature in January.

The Brotherhood, banned since 1954, won 88 seats with members running as independents. The 454-member house is dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during a visit to Cairo in October, gently urged the government to take the lead in democratic reform in the region.

She was quickly rebuffed by Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, who said Egypt would pursue reform at its own pace.

Analyst Mohamed el-Sayed Said, however, said a decline in U.S. pressure was only a “catalyst” and the opposition was to blame through failing to muster enough public support.

“The general mood of the public is with reform but the democratic movement in Egypt is weak,” he said.

Hani el-Husseini, a member of the leftist Tagammu opposition party, said hopes for a “Cairo Spring” had been exaggerated.

“It was a result of years without any political momentum. It was like when you beat Brazil once and then think you are capable of winning the World Cup,” he said.

Opposition groups say the police’s violent approach is the main reason they cannot attract more than several hundred demonstrator in a country of more than 70 million people.

The Brotherhood, meanwhile, prefers to concentrate on winning supporters gradually through charitable work and community action on social and economic issues, analysts say.

Kefaya, a group that came to prominence last year by opposing Mubarak’s candidacy for a new term but has since lost momentum, says it is patiently building up support among trade unions and campaigning against government decisions.

“The Egyptian people are only interested in earning their bread… They divorced politics 50 years ago and don’t care about constitutional amendments,” said George Ishak, the movement’s coordinator.

“A peaceful change will only come after an accumulated effort and will take time … But we will never lose hope.”

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