Egypt steps up Muslim Brotherhood arrests

Egyptian authorities have been stepping up arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members, including some journalists. Many observers say the regime wants to keep the Brothers from running in the April 8 municipal elections.
egypt muslim brotherhood
Muslim Brotherhood defendants are led to trial at the Huckstepp military base. R.R.

CAIRO, Feb. 29, 2008 (MENASSAT) – An Egyptian military court this week postponed the verdict in the trial against forty members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood until the end of March. The trial has been ongoing for more than a year and has attracted widespread international attention and criticism towards the Egyptian authorities for trying civilian citizens in military courts.

The defendants include a number of high-ranking Muslim Brotherhood members, among them deputy supreme guide Khairat Al-Shater who was arrested in a pre-dawn raid on December 14, 2006 along with a number of students from Al-Azhar University. Also on trial is Ahmed Ezz Eddin, the Cairo correspondent of the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Mogtamaa and former editor-in-chief of the now barred El-Shaab, the newspaper of the dissolved Islamic Labor Party.

In a series of unrelated arrests, Egyptian authorities also arrested Khaled Hamza Salam, the editor of IkhwanWeb, the English-language news website of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The students had earlier in the month held a military-style rally wearing uniforms and combat maneuvers which was viewed as an aggressive act by the Egyptian authorities. 

Although reports said that Muslim Brotherhood leaders had distanced themselves from the act, the national authorities suspected that the group was planning a coup d’etat.

The members were subsequently charged with providing students with weapons and military training, membership in a banned organization, and later money laundering and running businesses on behalf of a banned organization. Their financial assets were frozen.

As of December 2007, the main charges against the defendants appeared to have been reduced to "membership of a banned organization" and "possession of anti-state literature." Further charges against the detainees such as terrorism have reportedly been rescinded by the court.

Egyptian criminal courts have acquitted the arrested Brothers of all charges several times before, but appeals by the government with the supreme administrative court have kept the detainees in a prolonged legal merry-go-around.

On Tuesday afternoon hundreds of supporters of the banned group gathered at Huckstepp military base in the outskirts of Cairo in solidarity with the defendants.

"The message is clear, we want a fair trial," Mohamed Salman, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a reporter for Ikhwanweb told MENASSAT.

Chanting "Allah Akbar" (God is great), the crowd also verbally attacked the Egyptian state security forces calling them "gangsters."

As usual, rights groups observers and journalists were barred entry from Tuesday's court session.

"It's a political case. The Egyptian authorities want to punish the Muslim Brotherhood ahead of elections," said Gasser Abdel Razek, Middle East Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Cairo.

According to HRW, the Egyptian government drastically changed its position with regard to the Muslim Brotherhood after the movement won 88 of the 454 seats in parliament in the 2005 elections, resulting in widespread detentions and trials before military tribunals.

Egyptian bloggers and members of the Egyptian mass media view the arrests as a blow to freedom of expression and human rights.

"Trying civilians before military courts is a normal thing for the Mubarak regime," said Mohamed Sharkawy, moderator of

Sharkawy, an activist and former torture victim, emphasized that the Islamic group should stand before a civilian court.  

"I'm not in favor of the Brothers but I am against such oppressive military tribunals," he said, adding, "It's quite obvious that postponing the trial is meant to hinder the group from participating in the upcoming municipal elections."

The Muslim Brotherhood announced only this week that it would run in the municipal elections, which are scheduled for April 8.

The Muslim Brotherhood group, which started in the late 20s, says it seeks an Islamic state through democratic means. Despite being banned since 1954, the group makes up fifth of the current Egyptian lower-chamber in the parliament.

According to the movement, some four-hundred of its members are currently behind bars.

In other arrests, the Egyptian authorities on Tuesday detained Khaled Hamza Salam, the editor of IkhwanWeb.

Hamza was picked up off the street and taken into custody along with dozens of other members of the Brotherhood. 

The next day, twenty-five more Brotherhood members were detained in nine different provinces in pre-dawn raids, bringing the total number of arrests over the past two weeks to more than 250 (in addition to the four-hundred already claimed by the Brotherhood).

"Hamza's arrest comes as a major setback for reform in Egypt," said Ikhwanweb journalist and moderator Ibrahim el-Hodaiby. "Hamza is known for his moderate stances and openness."

Hamza was arrested shortly after having met with Violette Dagherre, the chairwoman of the Paris-based Arab Commission for Human Rights. Dagherre was on yet another visit to Cairo in her campaign against the MB military tribunal. He had also met with U.S. peace activist Cindy Sheehan, who urged the Egyptian authorities during her visit to Cairo to release imprisoned members of the group.

According to Abdel Moneim Mahmoud, moderator of the weblog Ana Ikhwan (I am a Brother), these meetings were the underlying reason for Hamza's arrest.

"They know he's the co-editor of the Brotherhood's English-language website. They know he's a voice that reaches out to activists around the world. He was told during interrogation that he should watch his relationship with international human rights organizations."