CAIRO // Egyptian authorities arrested 33 Muslim Brotherhood members over the weekend, including senior members, in the strongest move against the group in more than two years. The first arrests came in dawn raids on Thursday across six provinces. The defendants, including Osama Nasr, a member of the guidance bureau, the group's decision-making body, were detained for 15 days on charges of joining a banned group, possessing documents calling for regime change, money laundering and establishing cells around the world.
Twenty more members were arrested on Friday for planning to take part in "Anger Day" protests against the creation of Israel. Two lawmakers from the group and another senior member of the guidance bureau could be summoned for interrogation or arrested in the coming days, the group's lawyer, Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud, said. The Brotherhood, established in 1928, is the mother of Islamist movements. It has been banned since 1954, but remains the largest and most powerful opposition group here, despite recurrent crackdowns.
"Not less than 30,000 members of the Brotherhood have been arrested and served prison terms since 1995," Mohammed Habib, first deputy leader of the group, said in an interview. "This is our destiny, and we've been accustomed to it. We have our mechanisms to deal with it and keep in touch and expand, and the state has its measures and keeps trying to limit and exclude us." Mr Habib, 66, was sentenced by a military court to five years in prison in 1995.
"We are always ready to be arrested at any minute; we keep our prison bags packed and ready to go," Mr Habib said. "As much as they try to tarnish our image with their false accusations, and spread fear and frustration among Egyptian people, many sympathise with us for the injustice falling on us, and increase their support." In April 2008, a military tribunal convicted 25 senior Brotherhood leaders, sentencing them up to 10 years each. The court also ordered the confiscation of millions of dollars in assets belonging to the men.
Despite the considerable official pressure on the group and the alleged rigging of legislative elections in favour of the ruling National Democratic Party, Brotherhood members managed to win one-fifth of parliament seats in 2005, stunning the regime. As the group is officially banned, candidates ran as independents. In a statement posted on the group's website, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the group's leader, said the latest arrests are part of an official "strategy" to prevent the Brotherhood's role in Egyptian politics.
"The regime will fail in achieving its goals, and these campaigns will increase our steadfastness and we will continue working for the development of our country," added Mr Akef, who spent 20 years in prison, before being released in 1974. Mr Habib said the arrests were a result of the group's support for Hamas during the Gaza war and the Lebanese Shiite group Hizbollah. Egyptian authorities announced last month they had arrested a cell belonging to Hizbollah, which they accused of planning terrorist attacks in Egypt. The group said the cell was assisting Palestinian resistance in Gaza.
"We are being punished for our moral support to resistance movements, as we believe that resistance, not surrender and accepting Israel's leftovers, is what is going to liberate Palestine," Mr Habib said. "The Egyptian regime wants to silence all resistance voices which are against the settlement wanted by Israel and regimes allied with it." The Egyptian government launched a media campaign against the Brotherhood after those arrests, portraying the Brotherhood as "unpatriotic" supporters of Iran, Hamas and Hizbollah.
"The arrests are also a pre-emptive strike before American President Barack Obama's visit to Egypt next month; it's a message to Obama that we are a banned group, especially after some American research centres and media urged him to meet our members," Mr Habib said. The Brotherhood, like other Egyptian opposition groups, are not enthusiastic about Mr Obama's choice of Cairo to deliver his speech to the Islamic world on June 4, which they consider as a boost to the Egyptian regime and its allies in the region.
Mr Habib also said the arrests had to do with local questions like the "sensitive issue of the inheritance of power" and legislative elections. President Hosni Mubarak, 81, has ruled Egypt since 1981, has no vice president, and is believed to be grooming his 45-year-old son, Gamal, for the post. Both deny that. The Brotherhood has not announced if it will run candidates in 2010 elections. "The state's ongoing attempts to undermine the Brotherhood in political and social life has several wings: legal, media, political, economic and arrests," said Ammar Ali Hassan, a political analyst. "It's always before critical and important political phases, the authorities crack down on the group.
"Besides discouraging Obama from considering them as legitimate opposition, the authorities need the Brotherhood to pressure Hamas and Hizbollah, as Egypt wants to regain its regional broker role, and to succeed in the battle between moderate and resistance camps in the region." Mr Habib, a candidate to replace Mr Akef next year as leader of the group, admits they struggle with internal problems too. "There are differences and unresolved issues inside the group. But I also see it as a healthy phenomenon and a proof of the vitality of the group, which is trying to revive its blood and youth."