With elections for Egypt's People's Assembly, the lower house of parliament, set for this fall, the government has already begun its usual crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist social organization and political party that is banned by law but allowed to operate with a low profile by the government. Following the arrest in February of high-ranking Brothers, police arrested dozens (perhaps hundreds) on Friday and Tuesday at protests.
The Brotherhood won 88 seats in the 454-seat Assembly during landmark elections in 2005. Since then, the leadership of the Brotherhood has changed and signaled less of an interest in electoral politics, but President Hosni Mubarak's approach to the organization has remained the same: Mubarak's government looks like it's in the process of turning the screws on the Brotherhood in the run-up to this year's elections, just as it did in 2005.
Leadership already imprisoned
In December, the Brotherhood held impromptu internal elections to determine the makeup of its 16-member Guide's Office, which functions as a cabinet for the group's leader, or supreme guide.
Mohammed Habib, a moderate deputy to then-Supreme Guide Mohammed Akef, failed to win a seat in the Guide's Office, as did other moderates. Mahmoud Ezzat, a conservative, won a spot and became the deputy to the newly elected supreme guide, Mohammad Badie. Marc Lynch interpreted the internal elections as a move away from politics by the Brotherhood and toward a focus on social and educational programs.
But early last month, Ezzat and other members of the Guide's Office were arrested for participating in banned political activity. The Brotherhood's unofficial spokesman, Essam el-Erian, was arrested, along with a total of six Guide's Office members. Gregg interpreted the arrest of Ezzat, who hadn't done anything unusual to provoke the regime, as message to Badie. So did Diaa Rashwan, of the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, who told the New York Times' Michael Slackman that "[t]he purpose, it seems, is to disrupt the new leadership before it gets any time to breathe."
Rounding up protesters
An Egyptian security official indicated that more arrests would follow, and follow they did: On Friday, security forces arrested 50 Brothers attending a rally to protest new Israeli settlement plans and the designation of two holy sites in the West Bank as Israeli heritage sites. (Slackman said that some 300 members had been arrested on Friday.)
"The Brotherhood had urged Egyptians to take part in the protests across the country and the arrests took place in several provinces," the AFP reported.
On Monday and Tuesday, the government arrested 33 people associated with the Brotherhood, according to the AFP. Fifteen were students who joined the hundreds of Egyptians protesting Israeli's recent settlement expansion. Eighteen others were arrested during dawn raids in Alexandria, on Monday, the AFP also said.
What gain for the government?
According to the Brotherhood, some 345 of its members are now behind bars. Salama Ahmed Salama, chief of the Shorouk newspaper's editorial board, said the aim of the arrest campaign is the same as it ever was: trying to prevent the Brotherhood from seriously contesting the upcoming election.
But that seemed to be the Brotherhood's new path anyway. Badie doesn't seem ready to lead the group on a crusade into this year's parliamentary election. And although he could be considered a "conservative" to the "moderateness" of Habib, Badie is -- as Gregg noted in January -- unlikely to make any radical changes to the bureaucratic Brotherhood.
Still, given the incipient Mohamed ElBaradei campaign, Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party might just be so afraid of impending change that they want to ensure that the Brotherhood is marginalized ahead of this year's elections. If the NDP can reduce the Brotherhood's 88-seat minority, then the likely power transition from the ailing Mubarak -- who's set to run for re-election in 2011 -- to his son Gamal at some point in the next seven years will be all the easier. And the Brotherhood will have less of a platform from which to exercise power during the potential political vacuum that will occur in the wake of Mubarak's possible death in office.