CAIRO // The arrest of three members of a suspected militant cell has highlighted the growing challenge for Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi in dealing with Islamic extremism spawned by conflicts in the region.
The men are accused of plotting to blow up an unspecified western embassy. They were found in possession of 10 kilograms of ammonium nitrate, a chemical compound used in fertiliser that can also be used in explosives, Mohamed Ibrahim, the minister of interior, said on Saturday.
One of the suspects had travelled to Pakistan and Iran for training and was a member of Al Qaeda in Algeria, Mr Ibrahim said. The group was also in contact with Al Qaeda in Pakistan and "elements responsible for receiving terrorist elements on the Turkish borders".
Friday's arrests marked the second time since Mr Morsi was elected president more than 10 months ago that Egyptian security forces have foiled an alleged terror plot.
In October, 26 men were arrested and charged with planning attacks against the government.
The group was known as the "Nasr City Cell" because the group used an apartment in Nasr City in Cairo as a headquarters.
Those defendants went on trial in April. Lawyers for the men have denied they were planning attacks on the state, arguing that they were organising support for militants in Syria.
The emergence of extremist groups in Egypt has placed Mr Morsi in a difficult position because he wants to distance himself from the brutal repression of Islamic groups that characterised Hosni Mubarak's 29 years in power, analysts said.
Under Mubarak, Egypt was an eager participant in the US Central Intelligence Agency's campaign to kidnap suspected extremists around the world in what are known as "extraordinary renditions".
Even before the US "war on terror" in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Egypt was waging a full-out battle with home-grown extremist groups who bombed tourist sites, assassinated ministers and attacked police.
Ayman Al Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor who took the helm of Al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden was killed, had his roots in those groups.
Many of the men abducted by the CIA were brought to Egyptian prisons where they were tortured and often held for years without criminal charges under Egypt's reviled Emergency Law.
One of Mr Morsi's first acts as president was to pardon dozens of detainees who had been arrested by Mubarak's security forces for alleged militant activity.
"President Morsi does not want to be involved in any aggression towards any Islamic group, Al Qaeda or anyone else, but these groups aren't giving him a choice," said retired Major General Sameh Seif Al Yazal, an adviser to the military.
"He released many of the extremists from prison and condemned the French infiltration in Mali, which shows how he feels. But the jihadists are sending a message that he can either implement Sharia and make Egypt a theocratic state or they will do it themselves."
The arrests have spurred anger from some of Egypt's ultraconservative Islamists who believe the administration is cracking down on fervent men who believe it is a religious duty to support rebels in Syria and Mali.
Mohamed Abu Samra, the general secretary for the Islamic Jihad political party in Alexandria, said "the Brotherhood think they can control everyone in Egypt".
"Morsi is using the same arrogant methods of the old regime," he said. "They cannot control our minds so they are arresting us."
Omm Zeina, the wife of Mohammed Abdel Halim, one of the men arrested on Friday, told The National that her husband was a committed Salafi, who believed in fighting against injustice in the name of Islam but that she knew nothing of a plot.
She described how two dozen security officers, all dressed in black, raided their home in Alexandria at 3.30am. They tied up her husband and carted away a box containing a computer and mobile phones.
In Alexandria, police also arrested Mostafa Bayoumi, 23, who Omm Zeina said was married to her cousin.
"They refused to show us a warrant for his arrest," she said. "My husband is religious but he is not a terrorist."
Mr Abdel Halim, 25, worked at a cheese import and export company, which took him on trips to Algeria, Morocco and Mali, she said, adding that he spent two and a half years in prison after being arrested by Egyptian police in 2006 for his views.
"He is not against the West, but he is angry about the killing of his brothers in Mali," she said, referring to the French-backed operation to reclaim territory in northern Mali that was seized by rebel and Islamic groups a year ago.
Mamdouh Ismail, a former member of parliament and Salafist lawyer representing the men who were arrested on Friday, said there was no truth to the statements made by the interior minister except for the existence of a bag of ammonium nitrate.
"Not a word of truth has been spoken so far, except about finding a bag of ammonium nitrate," he said. "We will prove they did nothing wrong."