FEATURE-Egypt’s Muslim Brothers await late-night knock
Muslim Brotherhood organiser Hani Sanad was ready, wary of that night-time knock on the door right up to the last minute before Egyptians voted in local elections this week.
Sanad had stashed all his wife’s jewellery in a safe place and had stopped keeping substantial amounts of cash at his home in the Nile Delta province of Kafr el-Sheikh.
“When the police come, they take everything,” said the 37-year-old activist.
Sanad was spared detention during Monday’s voting. But the Brotherhood, which the government calls an outlawed group, said 160 other activists were detained while campaigning for the 19 Islamist candidates running for seats in the Shoura Council.
The government banned the group in 1954 but allows it to operate within limits. It fields candidates as independents because the authorities will not let it form a party.
The crackdown, however, did little to stop the activists monitoring the activities of police, civil servants and others accused of widespread vioting malpractices.
In the village of Italia, Mustafa Bedeir’s mobile phone hardly stopped ringing, each time blaring out a prayer by famous Egyptian Koran reciter Mohamed Gibril. Most of the news was bad.
“People say they cannot vote,” he said. It was another caller complaining that Brotherhood supporters could not enter polling stations to take part in the elections.
As a representative of the opposition group in his village, Bedeir’s job was to campaign for the Brotherhood candidates, report any violations by the ruling National Democratic Party and help journalists cover the voting. Meanwhile he had to watch his back to avoid detention.
“Detention is something we know could happen at any time,” the 28-year-old court employee said, sitting in his small living room while sipping from a glass of orange juice.
“I am not scared. This is a sacrifice I am willing to make.”
Authorities said voting took place in a calm orderly manner despite reports to the contrary by human rights groups. The government says the crackdown against the Brotherhood is justified because the group is illegal.
The elections were the first confrontation between the ruling party of President Hosni Mubarak and the non-violent Brotherhood under an amended constitution designed to push the Islamists out of politics.
Analysts say the amendments, which include a ban on political activity based on religion, were a direct response to the Brotherhood’s strong performance in 2005, when it captured nearly one fifth of the seats in the lower house of parliament.
The government fears that, if allowed to build on that result, the Brotherhood, popular among many poor Egyptians partly because of its charity networks, can eventually mount a real threat to the rule of Mubarak, analysts say.
The Islamist group, which advocates the establishment of a democratic state based on Islam, runs clinics and mosques across Egypt. It has a charity department and its wealthy members are known for their donations.
In the northern town of Zagazig, Brotherhood members took position on a balcony facing a polling station and photographed trucks carrying what they said were ballot boxes to be filled by election officials in favour of the ruling party’s candidates.
Another activist showed up with a bloodied arm and said plainclothes security agents chased him when saw him taking pictures of a polling station with his digital camera.
“One of them (the agents) trapped me and I fell. They beat me up and took my camera away,” he said.
Sanad said many activists stopped sleeping at their houses a day or two before any major political event to evade the late night visits by security services.
For someone like Bedeir, however, keeping a low-profile is not an option. He says he has to collect donations for people he knows are in need and serve as the imam of the village mosque.
“At work they know I am from the Brotherhood. The security services know that I am from the Brotherhood, and when I am summoned for the occasional questioning I say I’m with the Brotherhood,” he said.
It was at one of the Brotherhood-controlled mosques in the coastal city of Alexandria that Abdel Moneim Mahmoud learned about the group for the first time nearly two decades ago.
At the age of 28, he is now a prominent member of the group’s media unit and has been detained three times by the state security intelligence for spells ranging between 47 days to six months.
“Last time they told me unless I stop I will be their guest every month,” he said over coffee. “I told them ’Then may God help you and me because I will never leave the Brotherhood’.” (Additional reporting by Aziz El-Kaissouni)