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Egypt Renews Crackdown on Islamic Opposition


The Egyptian government has renewed a crackdown on suspected members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned Islamic organization that has long been the main opposition movement in the country. Some say the crackdown is a legitimate response to a security threat; others say it is simply to stifle dissent. VOA's Sonja Pace reports from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.

Egypt's security services have been targeting summer camps - in Cairo, in the Nile delta and on the Mediterranean coast. In several raids in recent months, they have arrested dozens of young members of the Muslim Brotherhood. They accuse them of belonging to a banned organization.

Political commentator, Karam Gabr, head of the government-affiliated Rose al Youssef media group, tells VOA the arrests are justified and completely legal.

He says Brotherhood members belong to a banned group, banned because Egyptian law forbids practicing politics on the basis of religion.

He says the Muslim Brotherhood has been banned for a long time and that it has no legal status. He says every country takes legal measures to confront terrorist crimes and ensure security.

It may be banned, but the Brotherhood, or Ikhwan, as it is known locally, is very much in existence.

The head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Mohamed Mahdi Akef, tells VOA the arrests are unjustified, but not surprising.

He says the arrests have become customary practice in Egypt's despotic political culture. And, he says there is also foreign pressure to prevent Islam from being a major political force.

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928 and grew into the largest and most influential Islamic movement in the Arab world. It is the main political opposition in several Arab countries, including Egypt.

The Brotherhood's stated goal is to establish a state under Sharia, Islamic law, and also to unite Muslim countries into one Islamic state or caliphate. While the group officially opposes violence, many governments have linked its members to political killings and attempted uprisings. The Brotherhood was banned in Egypt in 1954 and has since gone through varying periods of being tolerated or being suppressed.

Members of the Brotherhood were allowed to run in the 2005 parliamentary elections in Egypt, but only as independent candidates. Still, they won 20 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament.

Mohamed Akef says that success at the ballot box worries the government.

He says the Brotherhood is the second most powerful bloc in parliament, and no other faction has the support it enjoys on the street. He says that is why the government is confronting the Brotherhood, a movement he says is beloved by the people.

From the outset, the Brotherhood has been more than a religious or political movement. It has a strong social agenda and runs schools, hospitals and welfare centers.

That kind of grassroots network is viewed as a threat by the ruling establishment, says political sociologist, Said Sadek Amin of the American University in Cairo. He believes the recent crackdown is a message to the Ikhwan and any other potential political rival.

"There are multiple messages being sent by the regime through this crackdown, not only for the Ikhwan but for all liberal, secular, leftist forces in the country - look at the Ikhwan, who are suffering a great deal and imagine what would happen to you when you are in fact a smaller power compared to them," Amin said.

The Brotherhood says that overall, the government is holding more than 500 of its members. Among them are 40 who are facing a military tribunal on charges of money laundering and financing an illegal organization.

The Brotherhood has, for now, given up plans to seek legislation to legalize the Ikhwan. Its lawmakers say they know they cannot get their legislative proposals past the ruling party. But, they say they will continue to try with proposals to fight corruption, improve education, health care and economic conditions.

Some see that as the Brotherhood's strength among the people; others see it as a long-term ploy to come to power and bring Islamic rule to Egypt.

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