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Political Levers Lock Into Gear in Election Year

Political Levers Lock Into Gear in Election Year

Egypt’s parliamentary elections are still months away, but the arrests have already started.

The authorities have locked up hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a routine signal that votes will soon be counted. However, what is different this year is that the arrests have begun much earlier than in years past, that they are aimed at a large number of the group’s leaders and that they follow a series of steps by the national leadership to limit the development of a strong political opposition, said independent analysts, human rights groups and members of the Brotherhood.

“We see this as a continuation or intensification of a crackdown on dissent that started in 2007,” said Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a nonpartisan human rights organization in Cairo.

The Muslim Brotherhood is officially outlawed in Egypt but has always been tolerated. Its goal is to transform a state whose laws are based on the Koran to one that is more closely ruled by Islamic law.

The group has public offices, a large following and 88 members serving in the 454-seat Parliament, and it provides social services across the country — all evidence of the state’s ambivalent approach.

Until election time.

On Friday, the Egyptian police swept through six governorates, arresting about 300 Brotherhood members, nearly doubling the number detained since last month alone. In total, about 350 are still behind bars.

“It is the same continuous campaign that is trying to keep them away from the political arena before the elections and prevent them from nominating their supporters,” said Salama Ahmed Salama, who is in charge of the editorial board of an independent newspaper, Shorouk.

Five years ago, the government allowed the Brotherhood’s members who were running as independents to campaign under the group’s slogan “Islam Is the Solution.”

But they began to win a number of seats in Parliament, alarming the government, and the thaw ended. The police were called in, polling places were surrounded, people were shot by the police and the Brotherhood’s gains were rolled back.

“There are districts with thousands of people who voted for them and helped them,” said Diaa Rashwan, an expert at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a government-financed research center. “And there are hundreds of other supporters and people with interest. This is an ongoing interplay that is very hard to come now and stop.”

The state plays a complicated game with the Brotherhood, giving it room to operate and grow, all the while warning Western nations that if the governing party of President Hosni Mubarak were to lose power, the Brotherhood might take control. At the same time, the government restricts the group’s ability to control the institutions of state.

“We are not the ones that are paranoid; they are the ones that are paranoid,” said Muhammad El Beltagy, a member of the Brotherhood who has served in Parliament since 2005.

Elections for the upper house of Parliament are set for May and for the lower house in the fall.

The arrests began in February.

They started shortly after the Muslim Brotherhood named a new supreme guide, Mohammed Badie. At first, analysts said, it appeared that the new leadership would focus on healing internal rifts and expanding its membership, not on running candidates.

“We have no other path to pursue but political and constitutional struggle,” Mr. Beltagy said. “We want political reform, so I cannot imagine not participating in political life.”

Apparently, that was not what the state was counting on.

In February and then again this month, security forces rounded up leaders from Cairo and Giza, as well as from governorates, including Alexandria, Asyut, Sharqiya and Gharbiya. They locked up well-known figures, like Essam el-Erian, the unofficial spokesman of the group, and Mahmoud Ezzat, the deputy leader, who is considered more influential than the new supreme leader. Officials said that they had arrested 5 of the 16 members of the group’s Guidance Council.

“It is rare for this arrest campaign to take place directly after the appointment of a new supreme guide,” said Mr. Rashwan. “The purpose, it seems, is to disrupt the new leadership before it gets any time to breathe.”

The Interior Ministry says this has nothing to do with politics and has charged some with being part of a secret cell within the Brotherhood.

“Their charge is this: a banned group holding organizational meetings, calling to topple the regime,” said Hamdy Abdel Karim, an Interior Ministry spokesman.

Mohamed Abdallah, a leading member of the governing party, said that Egypt was moving slowly toward more political freedom. He cited the almost daily workers’ protests in central Cairo, the robust debate in the independent news media and the fact that candidates were allowed to challenge the president.

“There is now such a thing as civil society that is accepted, even if it is still not that effective,” Mr. Abdallah said. “There is definitely an evolution taking place here.”

But government critics said they did not see an evolution. In recent years, there have been repeated arrests of journalists, editors, bloggers and opposition figures, intended to stifle opposition, Mr. Bahgat said.

While the government allows for the appearance of democratic practices, it makes sure to control the levers of authority to preordain the outcome, analysts and human rights groups charge.

But if it is nearly impossible for the Brotherhood to muscle its way into the presidential race, that has done little to calm officials, especially after the emergence of Mohamed ElBaradei, the former chief international nuclear watchdog and a Nobel laureate. Dr. ElBaradei has criticized the constitutional restrictions on political life here, and there is a grass-roots push to draft him to run for president.

After returning to a hero’s welcome here last month, Dr. ElBaradei insisted that political reform was the first step toward improving Egypt’s economic and social problems. Dr. ElBaradei said he supported allowing the Brotherhood to form a political party, and the Brotherhood said it supported Dr. ElBaradei.

Neither one appears likely to happen. “The current regime has been in power for 30 years, rigging elections and doing what it wants to do without regard for any pressures or what anyone has to say,” Mr. Salama said. “I am not at all optimistic.”