CAIRO // The lawyer for senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood arrested on Monday has described the dawn raids as a pre-emptive strike against the Islamist group ahead of upcoming elections. Fifteen leading figures of Egypt's largest opposition group were seized when security forces broke into their homes as they slept. The arrests came just three weeks after the banned group elected its new leader, Mohammed Badie, a conservative figure, who gave a conciliatory speech on his acceptance of the position.
Those arrested included the group's deputy leader, Mahmoud Ezzat, 65, known as the "iron man" and "the king maker", who is believed to be behind the rise of Mr Badie. Essam el-Eryan, 55, a spokesman for the Brotherhood and member of its Maktab el-Ershad, or guidance bureau, was one of those arrested. Mohie Hamed, also a guidance bureau member, was expected to hand himself to police yesterday, as he was not in when police raided his home on Monday, according to the group's lawyer, Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud.
The raids came as no surprise to Brotherhood members and observers in Egypt and many expect more arrests in the run up to elections for the Egyptian parliament's Upper House, or Shura Council in April and legislative elections later this year. Mohammed Morsi, one of the spokesmen of the new leader, Mr Badie, recently said the group, which advocates an Islamic state in Egypt, had decided to run in Shura Council elections.
While Brotherhood members managed to grab 20 per cent of seats in the parliament in 2005, the constitution has since been amended to make it almost impossible for candidates belonging to the group to run. "The crackdown was expected, and more arrests are on the way," said Mr Abdel Maqsoud, who was on his way to attend the interrogation of the detainees at the state security's headquarters, east of Cairo, when he spoke to The National yesterday.
"It's a pre-emptive strike against the Brotherhood in general and a message to all its leaders from different generations in different provinces, that the state will continue to root it out," he added. Unlike previous clampdowns on the Brotherhood by the state, the latest raid took place while the men were sleeping at their homes, not during organisational meetings. A statement on the Brotherhood's website said the dawn raids were conducted in a "barbaric way" that scared the "wives and children" of those arrested who were "put behind bars for demanding nothing except reform and freedom, and following a middle way that Egypt needs now more than ever".
The message added: "The Muslim Brotherhood emphasises that these arrests won't make them change the path it has chosen for the nation's progress, and it will carry on its struggle through all possible peaceful means to achieve freedom, confront corruption and combat despotism." The statement suggested the arrests were also related to the group's support of Palestinians and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, as well as this year's elections.
The conciliatory speech of Mr Badie on January 16, when he was announced as the eighth leader of the group, has not appeared to ease tensions with the state, which considers the group, founded in 1928, to be its arch enemy. "Concerning our stance towards the regime in our country, we emphasise that the Brotherhood was never its enemy, while they keep squeezing us, confiscating our money and arresting our members," said Mr Badie, 66.
The group said that about 5,000 of its members were arrested last year. Most of them have been released. Several leaders of the group are serving up to 10 years in prison for membership in an outlawed group that seeks to overthrow the government after a military case and trial that started in late 2006. The case was seen by many as retaliation for the group's stunning victory in the 2005 elections.
Despite being officially banned since 1954, the group, which renounced violence in the 1970s, has hundreds of thousands of members and supporters across Egypt and abroad. After their huge success in the 2005 parliamentary elections, the constitution was amended to make it more difficult for Brotherhood members to win seats. The most significant changes remove judicial oversight of elections, making them more vulnerable to government interference, and lay the ground work for a ban on independent candidates.
As such, the Brotherhood is not expected to win more than five seats in this year's elections. In 2008, they were unable to win any seats in the Shura Council elections. But according to Hamdi Hassan, the spokesman of the group's bloc of 88 members in parliament, running in elections is "a strategic decision and a religious belief" rather than a political move. "We are used to being arrested, imprisoned and we're ready to continue to pay the price for our principles, not to come to power," said Mr Hassan.
"That's why we survive and we always have new cadres of leaders, as we won't give up our legitimate demand of peaceful reform, and we use election times to increase people's awareness of their rights, amid illiteracy in general and political illiteracy." Several Egyptian and international human rights groups condemned Monday's arrests and demanded the immediate release of those detained. "The state has a strategic decision of no reconciliation, no negotiations and no recognition of the Brotherhood," said Ammar Ali Hassan, a political scientist and expert on Islamic movements.
"No co-operation, no alliances and no green light that would allow the group to regain its social and political power." email@example.com